In a landmark report issued last month, the United Nations has declared Internet access to be a human right and come out swinging against attempts by states and private actors to curb freedom of expression online. Authored by special rapporteur Frank LaRue, and described by The Atlantic as a "tip of the hat to Wikileaks and its campaign for transparency", the report is nothing less than scathing in its assessment of a number of online trends, including Obama's war against whistleblowers, Facebook's real name requirement and aggressive intellectual property laws that criminalize users and allow governments to seize foreign domain names.
Coming both in the wake of the Arab Spring -- in which online communication played a vital role -- and at a time when online censorship and filtering is creeping steadily westward, LaRue's writing is refreshingly radical. However, it raises a number of important questions, not the least of which is whether the report will be heeded. Will governments be willing to take a U-turn in their policy making, or will this simply be another example of the impotency of the UN?
As well, how do we begin to conceive of the Internet as a universal human right? After all, bandwith, infrastructure, regulatory regimes, market structures and literacies -- all terms that could be lumped under the umbrella of "access" -- vary tremendously as one moves across the globe. Also, it is even sensible to declare Internet access a right when so many other "rights" -- including clean water and sanitation -- are not being met in many parts of the global south?