[governance] Cerfing the Web, or Serfing the Web? (Understanding Google's Internet Evangelism against Internet Access Rights)

Paul Lehto lehto.paul at gmail.com
Tue Jan 17 16:35:15 EST 2012

On Tue, Jan 17, 2012 at 2:54 PM, Ian Peter <ian.peter at ianpeter.com> wrote:

>  Let me see if I can summarise this, as I think there is a lot more
> common ground that meets the eye.
> No one – and I think Vint Cerf is included here –  is denying that denial
> of access to the Internet is denial of a human right. I don’t think we have
> any disagreement here about that. (except perhaps with my expression)

No I think Cerf denies that access to the internet is a civil or human
right, in that he calls only for

Cerf is saying, in his conclusion, that anyone who believes internet access
is a right is PRETENDING.  It is not a civil or a political right, argues
Cerf.  Immediately prior to his conclusion sentence stating we should not
pretend that access itself is "such a right", Cerf specifically references
"appreciation for" (not "obedience to") civil and human rights as the
responsibility of "engineers" (not society, or governments), and then
further qualifies these limitations by stating that even the "tremendous
responsiblity" of engineers is limited to those civil rights "*that deserve
protection*."  Clearly, Cerf does not believe that internet access is
either a civil right or a human right *THAT DESERVES PROTECTION*, because
he has just argued the same.   He also states that anyone who says internet
access rights exist as a right is merely "pretending."

I've broken down his article into 14 separate assertions so you can follow
the train of his thought. Bracketed items are my comments, interspersed:

1.  Arab Spring demonstrations thrived and could never have happened as
they did without the Internet

2. This raises the question whether Internet access is or should be a civil
or human right.

3.  Cites three international events stating internet as HUMAN right.

4.  States that this argument misses a larger point: technology is an
enabler of rights, not a right itself.

5.  Claims human rights have a high bar of access, and "must be among the
things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like
freedom from torture or freedom of conscience."

6.  Argues it's a mistake to place any tech in the category of human
rights, because tech progress will then destroy the right, using the
example of horses being useless (to Cerf) today, had they been a right of
the past.

7.  Offers that the best way to decide rights is by the outcomes we are
trying to insure.

8.  The same goes for internet access as a CIVIL right, though the argument
for it being a civil right he says is stronger than as a human right.
Civil rights are provided by law, and not intrinsic to us as human beings
[therefore the case for internet access as a civil right is stronger, but
he doesn't say how much stronger, and doesn't imply it's strong enough to
win because the "same argument applies" as he just made for human rights

9.  Calls various types of "universal service" whether of telephone,
electricity or internet, as "edging toward" the idea of technology as a
civil right. [It appears Cerf would not think it unjust nor a violation of
any rights, civil or human, to deny a remote rural person or village of
telephone, electricity as well as internet, at least if the costs were

10.  Refers to the duty or "responsibility of technology creators
themselves to support human and civil rights." [But, per the above, the
human right to internet, or electricity service doesn't properly exist
because it's "technology", and the duty to support civil rights is no more
than a duty to follow the law of the land, which is expected of everyone
and therefore can't ennoble technology creators.]

11.  States "technologists" have a "tremendous responsibility" to empower
internet users and keep them safe from viruses, etc., but does not specify
where this responsibility comes from, or if it is binding law (in his view
of what the law ought to be motivated by, which is what this essay is

12.  Cites engineers and private standard-setting associations as deserving
credit and responsibility for empowering users and keeping them safe from
viruses, etc., because they "create and maintain" these things.

13.  Appeals to "civil responsibilities" AMONG ENGINEERS, in addition to
engineering expertise to achieve the goals of empowerment and safety on the
internet. [Does not call for creating or repealing legislation, nor for
following the civil rights laws, per se]

14.  Concludes by stating that improving the internet must be done with an
appreciation for civil and human rights THAT DESERVE PROTECTION -- without
PRETENDING that access itself is such a right.

> The discussion only seems to be about whether the right being denied
>  might be a more broadly expressed one such as the right to communicate,
> the right to access knowledge, or the right of free speech – or whether
> there should be a specific human right labelled access to the Internet.

You can re-read his article for yourself and compare it to my summary and
comments above, at

Paul Lehto, J.D.
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