Volume 18, Number 3 The CPSR Newsletter Summer 2000

Motivating a Human Rights Perspective on Access to Cyberspace: The Human Right to Communicate by William J. McIver, Jr.

The U.S.-centric Discourse on Universal Access Has Been Limiting

Human rights, in the words of Cees J. Hamelink, Professor of International Communication at the University of Amsterdam, provide a "universally available set of standards for the dignity and integrity of all human beings." These standards offer a common framework, much like software standards, in which human rights can be established, protected, and enforced more efficiently. The idea that everyone has a right to access cyberspace has been a common mantra of the cyber rights community for many years. CPSR's One Planet, One Net is one such noble effort in this area. Many such efforts fail, however, to make use of relevant human rights frameworks. Communication as a human right, distinct from freedom of expression, has been developing in international policy and legal contexts for the last 150 years and is the right most applicable to universal access. Communication in this context is defined as a democratic and balanced dialogue between two or more parties.

Computer Professionals for Social Responsibility (CPSR) began its critically important One Planet, One Net program in the late 1990s. Its defining document "One Planet, One Net: Principles for the Internet Era," translated on its Web site into several languages, is meant to have global focus and import, but makes no reference to international human rights frameworks. Instead, universal access is motivated with a common U.S.-centric amalgam of market-oriented rhetoric and (U.S.) civil libertarian arguments. One Planet, One Net, for example, characterizes the use of the "Net" as "inherently an exercise of freedom of speech, to be restricted at great peril to human liberty," but offers only a market-based example as a negative consequence of restricted access, stating that "the Net offers great promise as a means of increasing global commerce and collaboration among businesses, but restrictions on information exchange would eviscerate that promise."

Market-based arguments have limited applicability with respect to universal access. Human desires--to play games, order books, check stock quotes, or express one's feelings--are not the totality of human needs for universal access. The role of cyberspace in numerous life and death struggles calls for more concretized and analytic uses of the notions of "freedom of speech" and "liberty" than documents such as "One Planet, One Net" or the popular "Magna Carta for the Knowledge Age" provide. People have been using information technologies to affect human rights interventions. Radio and television were used in 1994 to report the massacre in Rwanda. Electronic mail played a critical role in disseminating information about the 1993 massacre of Yanomami in the Brazil. Facsimile technology was also a critical conduit for information during the Tiananmen Square massacre. The evolution of digital government and e-commerce is making it increasingly necessary to seek life-critical services and information via the Internet and other information technologies. Expression must, therefore, be seen as part of the fundamental life-critical social process of exchanging information: the act of communication.

U.S. civil liberties are also limited as a basis for supporting universal access. They offer a narrow conception of human rights, in a framework that is not likely shared or recognized by activists and citizens in other countries. Neither are our protocols for protecting, enforcing and adjudicating these rights common to other countries. The cyber rights community must, therefore, ultimately appeal to a transcendent framework -- international human rights.

Articulating Universal Access as the Human Right to Communicate

Human rights derive from human needs. A human right can be defined as a universally recognized legal right, which if not granted would cause the lives and livelihoods of human beings and communities to be impeded or harmed. A freedom differs from a right in that it is not imperative that the freedom be exercised in order to avoid impeding the lives and livelihoods of human beings. A freedom's exercise is subject to the will of the individual. The only requirement of a society is that it not allow the exercise of a freedom to be hindered. Freedom of expression can be seen as addressing the formulation and content of communication, whereas the right to communicate focuses on the means and processes required to make and convey expression. Individuals may live in a society which grants freedom of expression, but which places heavy restrictions on access to media necessary to convey expression. Individuals in such a society may want to protest the violation of other rights. The right to communicate, thus, addresses both the critical day-to-day communications needs of people, and a right necessary for the protection of other rights. Communication is a basic human need because it is a fundamental social process necessary for expression and all social organization.

The world community made critical strides in the twentieth century toward the identification of universally accepted rights. The defining moment for this was the unanimous adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) by a young United Nations on December 10, 1948. The adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was followed in 1966 by the adoption of a set of corresponding treaties binding on the nations that ratify them. These are the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Optional Protocols. The first of the two protocols to the ICCPR prescribes the means by which the Human Rights Committee, enabled by the ICCPR, is to receive and process complaints of human rights violations.

An early basis of a human right to communicate is supported by three provisions of the UDHR: Article 19, Article 27 section 1, and Article 28. Article 19 states:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression: this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

This provision recognizes not just the need for one-way modes of communication; it also recognizes the bi-directional nature of democratic communication and the need to access appropriate media to communicate. Article 27 (1) states:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

Scientific advancements such as the Internet or browser technology is not seen in this context as the exclusive property of those who can negotiate the market place, but entitlements of all whose societies support their creation (e.g. through government grants). Article 28 states:

Everyone is entitled to a social and international order in which the rights and freedoms set forth in this Declaration can be fully realized.

The realization of such an order, recognized since the time of Plato's Republic, requires both freedom of expression and communication.

Catalysts for the development of the human right to communicate were provided by the evolution of norms and standards of universal service in telephony and the response by developing nations to the unidirectional nature and undemocratic use of mass media controlled by industrialized nations. In 1961, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution supporting the right of access to satellite communications by all countries on a non- discriminatory basis. By 1969, Jean d'Arcy, Director of Radio and Visual Services in the UN Office of Public Information, introduced the concept of the right to communicate, in response to developments in satellite technology. Unesco in 1974 began supporting the right to communicate, stating:

The right of expression may not be restricted by indirect methods or means, such as the abuse of government or private controls over newsprint, radio broadcasting frequencies, or implements of equipment used in the dissemination of information, or by any other means tending to impede the communication and circulation of ideas and opinions.

Opposition to the right to communicate is varied. Western nations have opposed it on the grounds that it would lead the establishment of some information order. Other countries have opposed the concept because they saw it as justifying the importation of objectionable values.

What Should a Human Right to Communicate Include?

Various proposals have been made concerning the provisions which should constitute the human right to communicate. The Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation in 1981 proposed that such a right should support the following principles:

pluralism: The right to communicate should be available to all.

direct communication flows: All entities in all sectors of a society should be able to communicate directly with each other without external control.

social function: Information has a social function. It should not be viewed as propaganda nor a commodity, nor should it be controlled by the power structures of the market or the state. Information should contribute to reducing ignorance and preconceptions.

media analysis: It is important to analyze and report on the processes and meta-information which are transported across a medium.

communication versus information: Communication should occur through horizontal mutually beneficial exchange of information, not through vertical transfer from those who have control of a medium to passive receivers.

appropriate use of technology: Technologies should be reviewed as to their potential impact on a society and power structures within them.

Hamelink has proposed a comprehensive framework for supporting communication as a human right which has three components: norms, enforcement procedures, and implementation mechanisms. Norms for the human right to communicate in Hamelink's framework would be organized into four categories: information rights, protection rights, collective rights, and participation rights. Some of these norms, Hamelink points out, are already binding norms adopted in existing covenants, such as the ICCPR.

Information rights would include the right to hold opinions, the right to freedom of expression, the right to receive, seek and impart information and ideas, and the right to reply. Protection rights would contain protections on privacy of information; presumption of innocence in communications about criminal cases; protections against discriminatory forms of communication, such as prejudicial treatment in the media; protections against deceitful use of communication media, including individual protections against misleading and distorted information; and protections for professional journalists employed by public or private organizations. Collective rights would contain rights for access to communication media by social groups; the right of development, including the development of communication infrastructures, procurement of resources, knowledge and skills sharing, equality of economic opportunities, and remedy of inequalities; and a communal claim to intellectual property. The category of participation rights would contain the right of individuals to participate in decision making processes regarding communication.

Procedures for enforcement should provide: means of ensuring accountability, effective remedy should violations occur, and effective redress against both governmental and non-governmental organizations that commit violations. Hamelink proposes that the minimum requirements for procedural enforcement are: the right of individuals and groups to file formal complaints of violations, recognition of an independent tribunal to adjudicate such complaints, and the recognition as binding of the opinions of the independent tribunal for states who are party to an accord on the right to communicate, as well as individuals and groups within them.

Implementation mechanisms for a right to communicate should include a review and monitoring body, a special rapporteur, and an independent tribunal. The special rapporteur conducts independent research and evaluation of the implementation processes.

International human rights frameworks provide the most sound basis for a number of organizations that are approaching universal access using human rights as a basis. These include the People's Communication Charter, the MacBride Round Table on Communication, and Platform for Democratic Communication. These and other organizations are part of an international consortium called Voices 21, which addresses media and communication issues. CPSR should consider aligning itself with these efforts in its One Planet, One Net campaign.

William J. McIver, Jr.
Department of Computer Science
Brown University
Providence, Rhode Island 02912

For more information on this issue see the following sources:

This work was supported in part by the Center for Education and Research in Information Assurance and Security (CERIAS) at Purdue University.

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