News And Politics

United Nations says Internet access is a basic human right

July 9, 2012, 1:23 p.m.

An ethernet cable. The United Nations declared on Thursday that Internet access and freedom of expression online is a basic human right. (DeclanTM/Flickr Creative Commons)

The United Nations Human Rights Council unanimously declared last Thursday that Internet access and online freedom of expression is a basic human right.

All 47 member states of the council signed the resolution*, which says all people ought to be allowed to connect to the Internet and freely express themselves there.

It's not the first time the U.N. has referred to Internet access as a human right – a 2011 report by the council said "ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all States."

Thursday marked the adoption of an actual resolution in that vein, which "affirms that the same rights that people have offline must also be protected online, in particular freedom of expression."

The resolution, which was adopted without a vote, was introduced by Sweden and co-sponsored by countries including Tunisia, Brazil and the United States.

China, which has a penchant for censorship, said it hoped the council would take different views on freedom of expression into account, noting that states were "bound to run the Internet legally," lest the free flow of "unhealthy and negative" information "obstruct the function of the Internet."

Despite that, China – a member state of the Human Rights Council – backed the resolution.

Cuba, also a member of the council, said the resolution didn't take into account the fact that most people in the world don't have access to the Internet. (Internet World Stats estimates that about a third of the world can get online.)

South Los Angeles is, in some ways, one of those places Cuba was talking about. In recent years, a nonprofit community economic development organization named CDTech has worked to get the Vernon Central community (roughly the 90011 zip code) connected to the Internet. Its goal was to get 10 percent of its approximately 20,000 households connected. It ended up surpassing that goal and got 16 percent online.

"High-speed Internet access [in the area] is limited – it's on and off," Kristine Williams, CDTech's vice president for strategic initiatives, told OnCentral in May. CDTechLink, a center which provided computer/Internet access and tech training to folks in Vernon Central, shut down in late May due to funding problems, leaving South L.A. residents with even less access.

CDTech President and CEO Benjamin Torres said the U.N. was "absolutely right" to think of Internet access as a basic human right, adding that it was up there with housing, health and education.

"The Internet provides people with connectivity, access to education, information," he said. "It allows them to connect with each other."

Torres says the Internet is a place people can "develop the kinds of skills and capacities needed in this current environment," but characterized South Los Angeles as a place that's been left behind.

"I think this movement toward social media, smaller media, technology that's 'quick response' – there are a lot of folks using that, but there are also a lot of folks who never learned to use the desktop technology."

He explained that for unauthorized immigrants, or for young people who went to schools with no basic technological or computer training, that's a disadvantage that puts them behind. Social media – sites like Twitter and Facebook – can be an "opportunity for people to jump in" and learn, but learning about that doesn't replace basic computer and technology skills, he said.

"Texting is great, but texting doesn't help you get a job," he said, adding that getting used to the shorthand that often characterizes text messages or tweets can be detrimental when it comes to getting a job or carrying out a successful Internet search. The southside has more places where people can get online than it did 10 years ago, he noted, à la the late CDTechLink, but in terms of using the web for job applications or communicating with local government, the region just isn't at that level.

"The biggest use of technology in South Los Angeles is for gaming, primarily," said Torres. "Technology is a fundamental and basic human right – to have an opportunity to be successful. We're still very far behind."

*This is only a draft version of the resolution. If we locate a final version, we will update this post.

Photo by DeclanTM via Flickr Creative Commons.

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