Vint Cerf on Why Internet Access Is Not a Human Right (+ A Few More Reasons)

by on January 5, 2012 · 22 comments

In an provocative oped in today’s New York Times, Vint Cerf, one of the pioneers of the Net who now holds the position “chief Internet evangelist” at Google, makes the argument for why “Internet Access Is Not a Human Right.” He argues:

technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself. There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time. Indeed, even the United Nations report, which was widely hailed as declaring Internet access a human right, acknowledged that the Internet was valuable as a means to an end, not as an end in itself.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I generally agree. But there are two other issues Cerf fails to address. First, who or what pays the bill for classifying the Internet or broadband as a birthright entitlement?  Second, what are the potential downsides for competition and innovation from such a move? As I noted in a recent essay here (“What Does It Mean to Declare Broadband a “Human Right,” and What Are the Costs?”):

We live in a world of trade-offs and there is no free lunch. One doesn’t just mandate broadband for all and then expect there won’t be any costs — both direct and indirect. The direct cost is the cost to taxpayers or ratepayers in form of higher taxes or bills. The indirect costs usually arrive in the form of diminished competition, limited innovation, lackluster options, and the various problems associated with the regulatory capture that will ensue.

The first objection is self-evident and needs little elaboration since we are today witnessing the breakdown of welfare state entitlement systems and policies across the globe as one country after another is bankrupted by them. But the second point needs to be unpacked a bit more.

As I noted in my earlier essay, the best universal service policy is marketplace competition. When we get the basic framework right — low taxes, property rights, contractual enforcement, anti-fraud standards, etc. — competition generally takes care of the rest. But competition often doesn’t develop — or is sometimes prohibited outright — in sectors or for networks that are declared “essential” facilities or technological entitlements.  That’s not because they are natural monopolies, rather, it’s because the policies that lawmakers and regulators put in place to ensure universal service ultimately have the counter-productive impact of retarding new entry.  Worse yet, the entitlement mentality and corresponding universal service mandates typically produce less fertile ground for innovative breakthroughs. For greater ellaboration on both points, see my old 1994 essay:  “Unnatural Monopoly: Critical Moments in the Development of the Bell System Monopoly.”

So, while I appreciate and agree with Cerf’s humorous point that “Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it,” the more interesting question is this: If government would have decreed long ago that everyone had a right to a horse, would that have meant everyone actually got one? (Recall that despite a similar mandate for telephony and billions upon billions in spending / transfers, we never had more than 94% of the nation served with basic telephone service.) If everyone did actually get a horse via a hypothetical Horse Entitlement System, how efficient was that program and the resulting bureaucracy / regulatory apparatus? Who picked up the bill? Did it discourage entry by more efficient vendors? Did it discourage innovations that might have served the public better? Did the program outlive its usefulness and become a drag on innovation /productivity. Was the system gamed or captured? (I can only imagine the lobbying that would have ensued from the horse industry once trains, cars, and airplanes became a disruptive threat!)

These are the sort of questions rarely asked initially in discussions about proposals to convert technologies or networks into birthright entitlements. Eventually, however, they become inescapable problems that every entitlement system must grapple with.  When we discuss the wisdom of classifying the Internet or broadband as a birthright entitlement, we should require advocates to provide us with some answers to such questions. Kudos to Vint Cerf for helping us get that conversation going in a serious way.

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