Is Internet Access a Human Right?

Indra de Lanerolle, University of the Witwatersrand When most people think or speak about internet freedom, they are often concerned with the right, for example, to say what you want online without censorship and without being subject to the chilling effects of surveillance. These kind of freedoms are sometimes called “negative freedoms” or “freedoms from…”. They address the right not to be interfered with or obstructed in living your life. But there are also “positive freedoms” — “freedoms to…” Some constitutions – notably the US Constitution – only protect negative rights. But South Africa’s includes both negative and positive rights. Positive rights include, for example, the socio-economic rights to food and shelter. In its Internet Freedom Index Freedom House ranks South Africa as “free” alongside the UK, Argentina and Kenya. The ranking is largely because Freedom House weighs negative freedoms above positive ones. But how “free” is the internet in South Africa? For most, it is positive internet freedoms that may be more urgent. Freedom is access The South African Constitution in the Bill of Rights does not explicitly protect internet freedom but section 16(1) states that everyone has the right to “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas”. This is a right for everyone and it is not just a freedom from interference – a “freedom from” – but also a “freedom to”: a right to be able to reach others and be reached by others. In this it follows Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In his book Development as Freedom, Amartya Sen describes freedom as “our capability to lead the kind of...