We often spend so much time thinking about the internet as a perfect tool for our capitalist pursuits, that we forget some of its more meaningful abilities. Although it certainly has many—from education to healthcare to business—it would be difficult to find one aspect more important than its power to enhance human rights around the world. At its core, the internet holds one of the most fundamental pieces to our humanity—the freedom to connect.
As we know, one of the biggest threats to human rights around the world is the restriction, censorship, and basic oppression of others by various governments, organizations, and factions, including religious ones. Much like a brute force attack on human standards instead of networks, these forces are constantly battering at the gates of our fundamental rights and often winning. Although oppression and censorship are nothing new and have been going on for centuries, the creation of the internet positively revolutionized this restrictive state of being and finally provided a way for people to connect with information, society, opportunity, and knowledge without question. And while the “right to broadband” has certainly not been adopted by all nations, its inherent power over the human experience is something not even the greatest despot can change.
The Internet As a Right
Some would say yes, while others most certainly would say no. Sure, having unfettered internet access allows you to pursue information and opportunities you can use to enhance your human rights, like learning, growing, and thriving—but it certainly isn’t on par with other essentials like food, water, and basic survival. So, the answer lies somewhere in between, in a place where context is critical.
Back 1,000 years ago, our basic human rights were a lot different than they are today. People were dealing with different resources, cultural notions, and opportunities. They had less, and they expected less. So, in this digital age of 2018, when people now know how much incredible information is out there, is it still fair to hold our human rights to the same standards as the year 1000, a time we now fondly refer to as the Dark Ages? In this way, the notion of a right must be based on what is actually available to the human in question, and the invention of the internet has dramatically altered that context to include endless websites, social media, email, and tons of others things. And when thought about this way, it’s easy to see how many people around the world now consider internet restriction of citizens to be cruel and unusual punishment—and a violation of of their inherent rights as modern humans.
In 2011, the United Nations (U.N.) weighed in on this topic and suggested internet access both protects and promotes the right to expression, two essential pieces to human dignity. The U.N. even went so far as to say all governments should maintain open internet access to their citizens, even when the political landscape is heated or divisive. In fact, some would say this is exactly the time when the internet can be most helpful—it allows people to access various points of view so they can formulate their own opinions rather than blindly subscribe to the one they have been handed by the powers that be.
The Internet As A Web Tool For Activists
It’s important to remember—in certain countries, simply logging onto the internet and saying the wrong thing can land you in prison for several decades. Like real, behind bars prison. Maybe worse in some areas. But as internet privacy tools become more sophisticated, human rights activists, whistleblowers, and other “disruptors” of the status quo are finding innovative new ways to protect their locations, their identities, and their freedom.
Obviously, the Tor browser is one tool that has greatly enhanced the secrecy of certain individuals, who benefit form the way it scrambles information and makes tracking impossible. Like a digital tunnel, Tor is able to shuttle your data, your requests, and your payloads through the network without any form of digital molestation or observation. And because it leaves no trace of the users history, certain prying eyes can’t find what they need.
In the U.S., Tor is seen as a valuable piece of internet freedom and is even financially backed by the government. However, other nations like China and Iran have outlawed this type of privacy tool, primarily because they do not want their citizens voicing dissonant opinions—or worse, linking up with others who share their views and strengthening their numbers and overall agenda. Activists are able to skirt these restrictions through Tor, which allows them to share images, information, and news with other parts of the world—news certain governments would desperately like to keep private.
Other web tools like VPNs and encrypted email, both of which can be secured for free, have been effective in helping activists—although it’s worth noting, powerful governments are still a dangerous observer. They have been known to compromise the privacy of these tools through sheer threats and demands, even leading to incarceration and murder of certain individuals.
But despite these abuses, there’s no denying the internet has forever changed the way humans can engage with the world and has placed one seriously tough challenge on the horizon for entities wishing to silence others. And for that alone, we should be eternally grateful it has finally arrived in time to save our human rights.