Information and Access: Human Rights and the Internet

The dust being kicked up by Edward Snowden in Russia now and of Chelsea Manning before him is likely not the latest in a long line of leakers that have challenged and redefined the national and international conversations about what is or is not acceptable limits on privacy in our societies. These conversations are critical, for it is only by consensus that we can come to a collective understanding about the boundaries between personal and public lives. However, the substantially sordid revelations by Snowden has inflamed the discussion to such an extent that it's easy to lose track of an important thread that we might separate from concerns of privacy, and that's that the exceptional progress we've made at making information more accessible at a lower cost to more people on the planet than at any time in human history.

Access is an issue. The older among us can recall the long process of sifting through card catalogs, consulting journals for recommendations or personal networks for word-of-mouth suggestions. In many cases, this would be followed up with the realization that you'd have to request information through an interlibrary loan where a book or periodical would get mailed to you (if you were lucky enough to not simply be told that it was unavailable). In the world of mass media, dependency reigned on being able to afford equipment to pick up free broadcasts and the presumption that you lived in a nation that permitted access to you from diverse sources. At a glance, the notion that Bill Gates pushed that there are more important things than internet access seems true. Who would prioritize being able to read a copy of Le Monde over the pressure to get treatment access to a child dying of malaria, to say nothing of the frivolity implied with getting YouTube or Twitter accounts ahead of the goal of curing HIV/AIDS or ensuring clean water access to communities. And yet, it is precisely the lack of information that leads people to be unaware of the ways to prevent illness with handwashing, to leave them helpless and disempowered in the face of malaria prevention or treatment, and to believe that medical and economic and political problems are either unsolvable or are a feature unique to their culture/geography and thus impossible to address.

Freedom has been described in different ways. Burma's Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has called for the imperative to achieve freedom from fear as a foundation in political development. Freedoms of belief, speech, religion and ensuring the whole kit and kaboodle of human rights to be something the whole planet has access to? These are all predicated on an awareness that such rights are critical, are a birthright and are something that increasing numbers of the world are working to achieve on their own behalf and for those yet deprived. Witness the exploratory efforts made by Google to provide innovative access to the online world to far-flung regions of the globe. Endorse Mark Zuckerberg's desire to empower more people to have lives online, even if you think it's a business move. Celebrate the intentions of providing children with laptops with the OLPC project. Embrace the principles of freedom of thought and the ability to communicate equally, and the world is empowered to share innovations about medical research, technological advances, emergent threats to our collective well-being and the recognition that we are all on a little rock in space and should probably get along.

Finally, we come full circle. The need to share information does not (should not) preclude the freedom of thought that requires a right to privacy to exist. The excesses of governments around the world, and particularly the American one right now, should give us real pause about just what we're aiming for. While the idea of preventing mass violence against anyone is a laudable one, are we really willing to simply cast aside the idea of conversations even being able to happen outside of government oversights and regulation? Do you want to live in a world where there are large classes of people acting to decide not only the question of who gets to decide but to go deeper and decide the question of who gets to even know?

We endorse the principle that information of all kinds should be more free for more people, that there should be limits to what governments anywhere should get to examine and regulate about your internal or interpersonal life and that conversations of import sometimes necessitate that they only exist between two people and at other times the whole world. For the sake of increasing the spheres of tolerance, knowledge and diversity, make information access a priority around the globe. It is an egalitarian adventure to embrace, one that empowers the poor to access information in parity with the rich if we do it correctly. The costs of leaving it undone increase the disparity that drives so much suffering in the world instead of giving platforms to the talented but impoverished to map a journey to the future they want and deserve. Open access now!

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