This article reports that France’s highest court has declared access to the internet to be a “basic human right.” That decision seems absurd — humans have been around for millenia, so how can access to something that was only invented two decades ago be considered a “basic human right”? — but it is symptomatic of a troubling trend in the law. Increasingly, politicians speak of, and courts often declare, newfound “rights” without consideration of what the ramifications of such declarations might be or even, seemingly, giving much thought to what a “right” really is. What does it mean to say that access to the internet is a “basic human right”? Does it mean that access to the internet cannot be regulated in any way? Does it mean that citizens are entitled to access to the internet ? I ask the same questions when politicians or interest groups talk about “rights” to clean air, or to affordable housing, or to “a decent job,” any other condition that they believe to be important or worthwhile.
“Rights” should not be used to refer to economic conditions or commercial activities, like use of the internet. Instead, “rights” should be reserved for fundamental (if often abstract) concepts — like the right to free speech, or to equal treatment under the law, or to the free exercise of religious beliefs. Under the First Amendment, the government cannot prosecute me for peacefully expressing my political views, but if I don’t pay my cell phone bill I don’t have the “right” to express those views in calls made on my cell phone. So it should be with the internet: the government should not be able to prevent or punish my speech, but it should be able to regulate commerce on the internet, prosecute individuals who illegally hack into websites to steal confidential data, prevent the use of internet sites in criminal enterprises of illegal activities, and so forth.
Saying that access to the internet is a “basic human right” only cheapens the notion of a “right.” Should France change its motto to: “Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite . . . et Internet”?