Is unfettered Internet access a fundamental human right? Given their recent — and widely covered — spat with China over censorship laws, Google appears to assert that Internet censorship is an important enough issue to pull out of the People’s Republic altogether, even though China has the largest online community in the world.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also made clear in her address Thursday at The Newseum in Washington, D.C., that the Internet is a powerful tool for promoting democracy and human rights, and should not be repressed by any government or institution. (The Chinese Foreign Ministry responded on Friday, lashing out at Clinton’s criticism and claiming the address was “harmful to Sino-American relations.”)
But is Internet freedom itself a human right — an entitlement that no just nation could infringe upon?
First, let’s define Internet freedom, which really incorporates two ideas: access and privacy.
Access relates to the availability of information for Internet users. The Chinese government censors not only political or religious content, but also pornographic and excessively violent images. By restricting access to this kind of content, the People’s Republic is limiting the freedom of Chinese users.
Although the conflict between Google and China has evolved into a broader discussion of Internet rights, the dispute really began with an investigation that Google launched into cyberattacks on email accounts that were targeting not only Chinese political dissidents, but also U.S.- and Europe-based human rights activists.
This is where privacy comes in. Internet privacy relates to the user’s ability to feel secure during their online activities.
China may have the most extensive Internet surveillance and enforcement apparatus in the world, but they’re not alone in censoring content or targeting users for political reasons or otherwise.
Furthermore, although authoritarian governments, including China, are typically accused of being the major players in the censorship game (and they often are), the fact is: democracies do it, too.
The French government, for example, was recently engaged in a campaign to combat copyright infringement by targeting users on peer-to-peer networks.
It could be argued that China and France have the same justification for restricting Internet access: Both countries were simply enforcing the law. For both nations, the restrictions they choose to impose are simply a matter of priorities. China probably cares as much about enforcing copyrights as France does about limiting political discourse online. As in, not at all.
For a more direct comparison of the kind of censorship seen in China, let’s take a look at India or South Korea (both democracies and U.S. allies).
India, the second most populated country in the world behind China, and the largest democracy, has taken an active role in censoring content from radical religious groups. India’s Constitution dictates that free speech restrictions can be imposed for the purpose of maintaining “public order, decency or morality,” so the government’s right to censor other kinds of content can and has been applied to other situations. The nation even plans to step up its Internet surveillance and enforcement efforts.
South Korea, which has the highest percentage of connected citizens of any nation, has actively taken measures to curtail Internet privacy, imposing laws in 2008 targeting online anonymity.
If government restrictions on content are such an issue, why hasn’t Google similarly pulled out of India, South Korea or other such countries? (For a list of other countries that have some kind of restrictions on content, click here.)
Well, what about the issue of cyberattacks? While it is still unclear who was actually responsible for the assault on Google, we can fairly safely assume that pro-government forces bore some of the responsibility.
Politically motivated cyberattacks are not unique to China. Other countries, such as North Korea and Iran, with which the U.S. has strained relations to say the least, have engaged in far more devastating cyberattacks, yet they did not receive the same kind of attention or response.
However, in these cyber-skirmishes, the fire flies both ways. For example, American “hacktivists” targeted Iranian government Web sites during post-election protests. As Foreign Policy’s Evgeny Morozov asks: Will the secretary of State call for a similar investigation into these cyberattacks?
Although Google has taken what appears to be a principled stand, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did lay out an ambitious ideal for Internet freedom, the simple fact is that no one on Earth — or in space, apparently — has total access or complete security online.
As long as any government sees a threat to their national security, self-preservation, or whatever, these institutions are bound to restrict the kinds of content that they view as potential hazards.
While this certainly doesn’t excuse China’s actions regarding the repression of Internet access or targeting human rights activists, this does bring us back to the question that started this discussion in the first place: Is Internet freedom a human right?
Talal Al Khatib, Discovery News, Jan 22, 2010