Schoolchildren check their XO laptops at the Municipal Stadium in Ometepe Island February 29, 2012.
Credits: REUTERS/Oswaldo Rivas
It's a nice thought, and few people will argue that China's censorship of any search term related to the Tiananmen Square massacre's anniversary last week is anywhere near appropriate. But for an organization that produces too many toothless resolutions and too often tut-tuts dictatorial oppression, producing this report amounts to resources poorly allocated.
In the May report, Frank La Rue, the United Nations special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, wrote that "the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression."
That's true. He went on to say countries that censor the Internet, or deny their citizens access, should stop doing so. I suppose we should expect Syria to lift its blocks any moment now.
The U.N. report, almost embarrassingly, fails to note the stark divide between how countries around the world treat the Internet. Some, like Canada, are noted for an exceptionally large online population and an intense use of that infrastructure for protest, political debate and general communication. China, on the other hand, views the Internet as a threat and employs vast armies of censors to maintain its "great firewall." And many developing countries, like Ethiopia, are missing core pieces of infrastructure to make even dreaming of a digital culture close to impossible.
"Digital divides also exist along wealth, gender, geographical and social lines within states," La Rue wrote, eventually concluding that "states should adopt effective and concrete policies and strategies "¦ to make the Internet widely available, accessible and affordable to all."
What the U.N. report fails to mention, though, is how technology is a cultural development as much as a political and infrastructure project. Without an adequate law enforcement structure, regulatory structure and education structure to control both citizens and governments, as well as the time for it to be integrated into a local and national identity, the Internet can be a negative force. A. Wayne MacKay, a human rights expert and law professor at Dalhousie University, believes the U.N. report is problematic, too. "Technology is very much a double-edged sword in respect to human rights," he said. "Sometimes the Internet advances human rights and sometimes it detracts from them."
Internet access, for example, provides a startling level of anonymity to those who do not wish to be found. On the local level, that can result in teenagers bullying each other, but on a national scale it can result in extraordinary acts of criminality.
"The existence of freedom requires restrictions," he wrote in a 2010 article on the effect of the Internet on freedom, privacy and national security.
"There is a distinction between human rights, which require state intervention, and civil liberties, which require freedom from state intervention."
And that's the key to the U.N.'s problem in attempting to mandate the equal access of Internet for all: it is subject to the law of unintended consequences. Not everything can be regulated and mandated into existence. The natural evolution of technology requires that local etiquette and culture be built into new technologies to prevent them from being abused. That process of social incorporation is an extraordinarily important part of how a society comes to accept and integrate a new technology into daily life. And it takes time, a lot of learning and, sometimes, government regulation.
The Internet is a beautiful thing and one of the most outstanding technological achievements humanity has yet produced. But instead of forcing it down the throats of those who are still preparing themselves for it, how about we focus on clean drinking water and the ability to vote freely, first?