Archive for the ‘Democracy in the Century Ahead’ Category

How the Internet Became an Essential Part of Life

On Thursday, a German court ruled that people can sue internet service providers for unreasonable service disruption. The principle that ISPs are financially liable for inconvenience caused by disruption to their service is hardly a judicial revolution (although one actually being pinned down and forced to pay up is a pleasing novelty), but in doing so the court claimed that the internet was an “essential” part of life. This comes after the UNHRC received a report discussing freedom of expression and various other rights in relation to the internet, which was spun into “UN declares the Internet a human right!” in the media. Somewhat more substantially, four years ago the French Constitutional Court declared that access to the internet was a human right when striking down a law allowing the Government to disconnect people over copyright issues without a court order.

Some have, predictably, commented on the absurdity of the internet being labelled an “essential” part of life and talk of the internet as a “human right” has always attracted objections. People got along without it perfectly fine not all that long ago, how can it be essential or a fundamental right?

In a few short decades our world has been transformed by the internet, which plays an increasingly central role in our lives. It’s become our principle form of communication, many services are provided solely or principally online. Being disconnected from it, we can’t answer emails or effectively work from home. It’s much more difficult to search for a job or service. Our access to information, news and media would be hindered. As would our freedom of expression.

In the 21st century the right to free speech without the right to a free internet is the equivalent to, in 1913, having freedom of expression but no right to produce or read uncensored printed materials. Having economic rights without the internet is like having freedom of movement, but not be allowed to use an auto-mobile, train or aircraft when exercising it.

Digital rights and freedoms are under attack on many fronts, in the free world and beyond. Whether it be the threat of summary disconnections, censorship, proprietary standards, privacy or the criminalisation of “offensive” speech; as society and the economy become increasingly digital these become more than issues of fringe concern, they become issues which impact on our ability to participate in the society and economy of the twenty first century on the terms of our choosing.

Our lives are constantly revolutionised by tiny pieces of genius given physical form. In an age in which the world is increasingly digital, the cause of digital liberty has become the cause of liberty in general.