Jonathan Zittrain is a professor at the Harvard Law School and cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Jonathan, welcome back to the show.
Thanks so much.
So do you think that access to the Internet is a human right?
To put it in terms of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression, and that includes the freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
That sure sounds a lot like the Internet but it doesn't make it medium-specific. So if in 25 years we're all using the Contranet, we don't have to go back and revise our universal declarations.
Vinton Cerf argues that it's shortsighted to label any particular technology a human right; it's just a tool for realizing our human rights. Can the technologies that ensure those rights be separated from the rights themselves?
Well, there's always a tension between articulating rights at a high enough level of abstraction that they have an enduring quality, but also having it be specific enough that these lofty ideals can't just be dismissed as inapplicable to a particular situation.
There's a phenomenon that I call status quoism. In 1985, you were getting your news from television. You were getting your books from a library. You were getting your newspaper from your local hometown city. You'd have to go to great lengths just to see the newspaper from Chicago, if you happened to live in Washington. And it's not as if at that time somehow people's rights were being violated or they were unfree.
But once the Internet comes along and changes that baseline, you wouldn't want somebody to say, well if I prevent you, if you are in Washington from seeing something in Chicago, hey, it's only just putting you back to where you were in 1985, and you were fine then. That's using a baseline to limit speech.
And in that sense the Internet has been singularly transformative in giving people an ability to speak, to listen and to associate. That blows 1985 out of the water.
And I would love to see our understanding of the First Amendment and Article 19 bolt that progress down. And in that sense, that's why it's — it might be sensible to talk about the Internet as today's technology as something to which we have a right. But we can do that without having to change any particular lofty declarations. Those are written at a higher level.
One thing that Vin Cerf was concerned about wasn't that people would be denied access, but somehow governments who signed onto this might feel that they had to provide it, which in many places is very expensive.
It certainly is. Generally, around the world, when rights are declared usually those rights thought of as so-called negative rights; they're rights against government intrusion, rather than affirmative rights where the government is expected to give them something they don't already have, including such things as food, shelter and education.
So for a right to Internet, at least, it might be worth saying it's an aspiration; it would be good government policy to make sure people have access, meaningful access to the Internet. But whether or not that means the person can run into court and say, I want broadband [LAUGHS], you know — here's my address, I — I await your cable truck, that's a different story.
Do you think it would even matter if the Internet were classified as a human right? I mean, the world's record defending human rights has been less than stellar.
[LAUGHS] But it does matter to have people able to talk about Internet policy with the guiding light of principles like Article 19 and the First Amendment. And I — I don't sense any great groundswell of effort to add Internet to these documents because there's no need to. There is a need, however, to be mindful of these high abstractions, to be able to work them into day-to-day debates and to even recognize the observation coined these days as Metcalfe's law, that the value of a network doubles with every additional node to it.
Every individual participant.
Yes, and because that one node can communicate with everybody on the network, it doubles the number of potential links. Recognizing that and embodying that in policy I think is a really good. It's at the end of the day, really, a statement about humanity, not about computers.
Jonathan, thank you very much.
Jonathan's Zittrain is a professor at the Harvard Law School and cofounder of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society.
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That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Jamie York, Alex Goldman, PJ Vogt, Sarah Abdurrahman and Chris Neary, with more help from Liyna Anwar and Hannah Sheehan, and edited — by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineer this week was Dylan Keefe.
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On the Media is produced by WNYC and distributed by NPR. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
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