Right in the net

Virtual Consumer column from Ethical Consumer magazine Jan-Feb 2012

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” Of course just because you have a right doesn’t mean you have the ability: the declaration says nothing about who owns and controls the media. But just as the advent of the printing press changed the economics of information dissemination, making knowledge and opinions available to a mass readership, so the Internet has changed the economics of information sharing, creating a mass ‘writership’. My website may not be as visible as Rupert Murdoch’s on the search engines, but it is equally accessible. Anyone can make a correction to Wikipedia or post a video on YouTube that is instantly available to hundreds of millions of people.

The Internet has given new meaning to Article 19. The freedom it gives to share information across borders has not only challenged regimes with a weak commitment to free speech, it has also caused huge difficulties in the liberal democracies. The economic barriers that restricted the power to disseminate information in the past – the cost of reproduction and distribution – made it relatively simple to ensure that people paid for the ‘content’ they consumed. Two things came together to eliminate these barriers: the digitization of content – first of the written word and later music and video – and widespread broadband access to the Internet. The effect this had on the music and film industries is well known and – under pressure from them – governments in the West have made new legislation to combat file sharing. The French HADOPI law and the Digital Economy Act in the UK both contain ‘three strikes’ provisions to cut users’ access to the Internet once they have been warned three times to cease sharing copyrighted material.

Perhaps ironically, the attempt to introduce the HADOPI law in France led to it being submitted to the Constitutional Council, which then ruled that it violated the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen: the law had to be modified to require a judicial review before revoking Internet access. The ruling was widely interpreted as a declaration that Internet access is itself a human right. In June 2011 the UN declared in a report that it was indeed a human right and condemned the laws in France and the UK as being in contravention of Article 19. Nick Clegg claims the coalition Government will review the access blocking provisions in the UK act to see if they are workable. Perhaps he should consider instead whether they are a contravention of basic human rights.