The Positive Right to Internet Access

If you live in Finland, you can now add internet access to your list of “rights.” And not only is internet access a right, but, more specifically, a 1Mb connection is now your right. But that is just an intermediate step. This report also notes that:

The government had already decided to make a 100 Mb broadband connection a legal right by the end of 2015.

But Finland is not the only European country to make up such a “right.” Internet access was also declared to be “a basic human right” by the highest court in France earlier this year.

Having access to the internet is, no doubt, a good thing in contemporary society … but a “right”? Over time, especially in the last century or so, some have tended to characterize every possible human good as a matter of human freedom or “right” — giving it more moral weight. Gerald C. MacCallum once noted the following about this over-use of the term as far back as 1967 when he wrote the following: 

… disputes about the nature of freedom are certainly historically best understood as a series of attempts by parties opposing each other on very many issues to capture for their own side the favorable attitudes attaching to the notion of freedom. It has commonly been advantageous for partisans to link the presence or absence of freedom as closely as possible to the presence or absence of those other social benefits believed to be secured or denied by the forms of social organization advocated or condemned.

Take for example the health-care debate, where many have argued that health care should be a right. Notice also that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights goes as far as to acknowledge that:

Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.

The standards for what qualifies as a right have been diminished over time. One key difference seldom acknowledged is that some of these “rights” require action on the part of others — something not a part of traditional, “negative” rights (like those found in the U.S. Constitution). These “positive” rights, for example, would place a requirement on others to provide goods like internet access, health care or paid holidays to a person.

As such, these should be labeled human “goods” and not human “rights.” But, unfortunately, this confusion of terms is not likely to end any time soon.

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