< Internet is a tool, not a human right

Transcript

Friday, January 27, 2012

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

We all cry foul when access to the Web is threatened or cut off altogether, as it was in Egypt during the protests there, exactly one year ago. Last summer, a United Nations report declared that the Internet had become, quote, "An indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights." Some countries have gone as far as calling access to the Internet itself a human right.

Not so fast, says Vinton Cerf, one of the true founders of the Internet. In a recent New York Times op-ed, he argues that while the Internet is a terrific tool for improving the human condition, it does not rise to the level of a human right.

VINTON CERF:

Today if someone said, well you still have a human right to access to a horse, my reaction would be, well, first I don't know where I'd put it, and second, I have 250 horses sitting in my garage right now, which is —

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

— you know, the replacement for the barn. And I don't need the other one. So I — my only concern here is not to get so tangled up in a particular technology that we lose sight of the intent, which is to assure the human right to communicate.

Believe me, I am the last person in the world to argue that Internet is, is not useful. It is incredibly useful. It is incredibly powerful.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

I understand that “Reverend Cerf.” [LAUGHS]

[CERF LAUGHS]

So is evangelist really in your job title? I see it everywhere.

VINTON CERF:

It, it really is. When they asked me what title I wanted, I said, how about Archduke. And they —

[BROOKE LAUGHS]

- said well, that didn't quite fit, so how about being our chief Internet evangelist, and that seemed to work okay.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You wrote that however well meaning the argument is for declaring Internet access a right that the status demands a higher bar and that if we lower it, we could end up valuing the wrong things. Like what? What's the real danger here?

VINTON CERF:

If you look in the Constitution, if you look at the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, you find that these rights are often associated with things like the right to speak, the right to hear, the right to assemble, the right to food and shelter and clothing. These are very fundamental, and they are, I would say, almost immutable, whereas the technologies that enable them are going to change over time.

And so, my alarm here was that binding a particular technology to human rights seems like it has the potential mistake that after you've done this and the technology changes then you have to say, oh well, we didn't really mean that. This new technology is, is our new human right.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

But why can't that right transfer from technology to technology?

VINTON CERF:

If you were to take the view that the Internet is a human right or access to the Internet is a human right, the implication of that is that everyone in the world should be given access, that it has to be provided by the society. And here we run into a problem. We might have as a goal that everyone should have access, and we might even take the view that you can't be denied access when it's available.

The problem is requiring it to be available. And, and I think that's where I have a problem.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

If we agree for the purposes of this conversation that Internet access does not rise to the level of a human right, do you think it rises to the level of a civil right? Or can you find some analogy in American history to address that?

VINTON CERF:

The 1934 Telecommunications Act which, by the way, also included the accessibility to electrical power, comes very close because those two utilities were thought to be sufficiently important that it should be government policy to make it feasible for anyone to have reasonable expectation of access to them.

And one could imagine that the present day broadband initiatives in the United States and in other countries, like Australia, rise to the level of a civil right conferred by intent by the government.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

The bedrock of your argument, whether we're talking about horses or phones, is that Internet access is always a tool for obtaining something else that's more important.

VINTON CERF:

I think that it's very important not to mix up the tool with the outcome. The outcome is the ability to communicate — to speak, to hear, to gain access to information. But there might someday be other technologies that enable these outcomes even more effectively, and we'd want to adopt those as alternatives.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

You conclude your op-ed by asserting that the most fundamental issue here is the responsibility of the technology creators themselves to support human and civil rights. Google, along with the Yahoo! and Microsoft, has in the past censored search results when asked to do it by the Chinese Government.

I know Google has since changed its policy on this. Cisco and others have sold tools to repressive regimes that enable them to target oppressed groups, like the Chinese can target the Falun Gong. This would be a failure to ensure that the Internet remains a means to a better life, wouldn't it?

VINTON CERF:

Yeah, I think it is a, a more nuanced question than — than that. This is a two-edged sword. The things that we might do in the Internet to protect people from abuse might also be used by others to inhibit speech.

And it would be healthy, I think, for engineers like me and others to be reminded that these technologies are important tools in the context of exercising civil rights or even human rights, and that we should be alert to things that we can do to assure that they can continue to be used that way.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Thank you so much for doing this.

VINTON CERF:

Sure, no problem.

BROOKE GLADSTONE:

Vincent Cerf is a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and a vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google.