The Internet Is a Human Right

At first, I was surprised to see a New York Times OpEd by Vint Cerf with the title “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.”  But once I started to read I began to understand the point that Cerf was trying to make.  It comes out clearest in the sentence “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself” which in modified form is also part of our investment thesis at Union Square Ventures.  We don’t invest in technology per se, but what that technology allows startups to build.  That’s an important distinction.  We don’t go looking for “mobile startups” but rather startups that use “mobile” to do something that wasn’t possible before.

Yet I think Cerf is selling the Internet short, which is ironic given that he is one of its co-creators.  The Internet is not really a technology but rather a set of principles that have become embodied in a bunch of different technologies.  I am going to quote at some length from a document that Cerf also co-authored about the history of the Internet:

The Internet as we now know it embodies a key underlying technical idea, namely that of open architecture networking. In this approach, the choice of any individual network technology was not dictated by a particular network architecture but rather could be selected freely by a provider and made to interwork with the other networks through a meta-level “Internetworking Architecture”


Four ground rules were critical to Kahn’s early thinking:
[1] Each distinct network would have to stand on its own and no internal changes could be required to any such network to connect it to the Internet.
[2] Communications would be on a best effort basis. If a packet didn’t make it to the final destination, it would shortly be retransmitted from the source.
[3] Black boxes would be used to connect the networks; these would later be called gateways and routers. There would be no information retained by the gateways about the individual flows of packets passing through them, thereby keeping them simple and avoiding complicated adaptation and recovery from various failure modes.
[4] There would be no global control at the operations level.

Those turned out to be a powerful set of principles that enabled the massive innovation that the Internet has brought about (for some more context you can also read my Tech Tuesday post on networking).  These may seem like dry technical principles but  embedded in them are some profound social implications.  This is probably most obvious with the last of Kahn’s “ground rules” stating that “there would be no global control at the operations level.” While it has been pointed out that this may have been in part motivated by wanting to avoid a single point of failure/attack to create a network that might be sustainable even during or after a nuclear war, it also meant that decentralization was architected into the very heart of the network.

Black box routing too may seem like a solely technological concept.  Yet it embeds within it an important separation of labor between various parts of the network that has had a profound impact on how innovation can take place and who wields power.  In particular that ground rule is what has given us so far a fairly neutral network.  And as longtime readers of this blog know, I am an ardent supporter of preserving that network neutrality and making sure it extends to wireless networks as well.

If you paid close attention, the headline for my post it is not the exact inverse of Cerf’s who wrote “Internet Access” - I simply talk about the “Internet” by which I mean a set of ideas that is grounded in these original principles behind the architecture of the Internet.  At their heart all human rights are ideas and highly abstract ideas at that, such as equality and freedom.  How we concretely instantiate these ideas through legislation and social norms has changed dramatically over time and much of that change has been driven by technology.

So when I claim “The Internet is a Human Right” I mean that the legislation and social norms that we use to operationalize abstract rights such as freedom of speech should be embracing not fighting the principles of the Internet. For example, freedom of speech will be a hollow right if movie studios can make entire web sites disappear off the Internet without due process, as is currently contemplated by the legislation known as SOPA. That is the exact opposite of the principle of decentralized control.  To be clear, I am pretty sure that Cerf shares this view as he has come out against SOPA.  That’s why I wish his OpEd had focused on the Internet as a set of ideas rather than a technology.

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Posted: 9th January 2012Comments

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    internet? He says...rules which enables
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