Librarians & Human Rights

From the Atlantic Wire:

The United Nations counts internet access as a basic human right in a report that bears implications both to on-going events in the Arab Spring and to the Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers. Acting as special rapporteur, a human rights watchdog role appointed by the UN Secretary General, Frank La Rue takes a hard line on the importance of the internet as "an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress."

Great. Now when public librarians kick people off the computer, they’ll be calling it a violation of their human rights. Soon public librarians will be occupied by a blue helmeted multi-national force in order to ensure people’s human rights aren’t being violated. Ok, maybe not. But it also hits on the digital divide.

La Rue acknowledges the logistical barriers that some nations face when it comes to delivering internet service. Without the proper infrastructure, some nations simply can’t engage the internet as the "revolutionary" and "interactive medium" it’s proven itself to be. However, all nations should make plans to offer universal access and also maintain policy that won’t limit access for political purposes.

And there we have it: a written declaration of the right to digital information access. I fully acknowledge that there is a vast gulp between the words and their realization; it’s not even a matter of governmental interference (that’s a concern in and of itself) but lack of national infrastructure in some of the poorest countries in the world.

It’s a step in the right direction, for certain. Is it something libraries could capitalize on? I think so in nations that still lack for them; it is a pairing of print and computing that mimics what currently passes for a modern library. In more modern countries, my hunch is to think it might turn into computer centers rather than libraries.

Internet access as a human right: what do you think?

8 thoughts on “Librarians & Human Rights

  1. I would be more willing to state that access to information is a human right — the tools that allow that are semi-irrelevant. I say “semi” because you can make it more or less difficult through the availability of the tools, but not impossible.

  2. I would agree that Internet access is a human right, but you also have to balance it with the ecological impact. Cables, computers, other personal devices, and the plastics and minerals and so on that go into making them are real issues.

    Here in NYC, the radical techies at May First/People Link do a lot of work around concepts of the Internet and democracy and activism, including their “Collaborative Democracy Workshops” ( This is an example of one:

    • Thanks for sharing that, Melissa. Yes, the parts *do* create their own issues; I would hope that it would be something that people are working on right now in order to use different materials or ones that have sustainability to them. Thanks for sharing the link as well!

  3. Internet access has evolved into a human right because of the extreme disadvantage those without internet access must over come. Is it possible to get ANY job without internet access? I have to ask myself – what are the barriers that a preventing internet access to all? This is why legislation which blocks municipal broadband to undeserved populations is such a serious moral wound. You know there are places in the world where access to drinking water is a matter of corporate whim.

    • I can see where people would object to this resolution when there are very basic needs that go unfulfilled (the drinking water bit reminded me of that). Who cares about the internet when people are dying about the lack of basic requirements? Perhaps the idea is that, with internet access, they can make their case to the world for help. Although, when it becomes easier to wire up a town for internet access than to ensure drinking water, there is a strange arrangement of priorities.

  4. I’m a little skeptical of whatever definition the UN used to define human rights. Human rights, to me, are rooted in the relationship between people and society, and what that relationship entails. What society should provide, and what they can’t do, or allow others to do, to individual people.

    I’m not sure where internet access fits in. Communication is important, of course, but I don’t think any of us endorse right to newspapers, or radio, or any medium as a HUMAN RIGHT. You have a right to speech, but not a right to any of the media required to express speech.

  5. While I agree that Internet access, in some form or another, should be accessible to all people, I would not put it on the same level as other human rights, such as access to clean water, good food, and a basic education.

    You could have great wi-fi access, and even the use of a free computer. However, that is not helpful if you do not know how to read. If access to the Internet is to be considered a human right, than the social systems that promote education must also be put into place. Otherwise, one would be spending resources that could be used to better educate a population.

    That being said, having access to the Internet could be used to enhance education. Furthermore, it can be used to help promote the need to meet other human rights.

    (If I remember correctly, part of the Global Development and Social Justice Master’s program from St. John’s University in Queens teaches people to use the Internet to promote social justice in their home countries.)

    If access to the Internet can provide or enhance access to good food, water and a basic education, than it should be counted as a universal human right. If it can not help provide these, than it may be more of a privilege.

    If Internet access becomes more widely available to the point where the poorest people in the would could receive access to the Internet, what can we, as librarians, do to further the rights to a basic education, clean water and good food?

  6. >>> Great. Now when public librarians kick people off the computer, they’ll be calling it a violation of their human rights. Soon public librarians will be occupied by a blue helmeted multi-national force in order to ensure people’s human rights aren’t being violated. Ok, maybe not. But it also hits on the digital divide.

    I think you’re being facetious. Because the opposite is true. In my experience, when librarians kick people off the computer, it’s to ensure that other people have also have access to the Internet. It’s ensuring human rights, not violating them.

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