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Internet a human right?

We have all come to understand the power of 140 characters. But a recent report by the United Nations may be adding a new twist to what social media, via the Internet, means to societies.

We have all come to understand the power of 140 characters.

But a recent report by the United Nations may be adding a new twist to what social media, via the Internet, means to societies.

Titled the "Report of the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression," it declares that Internet access falls under freedom of expression.

"The unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only [enables] individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole."

The web, argues UN special rapporteur Frank La Rue, is too important a tool in asserting other human rights for people to be denied its use.

"Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states."

Reading this might naturally lead us to recall the Arab Spring and the role that the Internet and social media played in the uprisings we saw sweep the region.

And the crackdown against the Internet in this region and others is no doubt playing a significant role in the decision, as reported in the New York Times , to fund the development of shadow voice and digital communications networks that would mean people could keep tweeting or talking even when repressive governments are cracking down on open communications.

More and more we see the United States putting Internet freedom at the top of its foreign policy. Obviously this is not all altruistic.

Any economist will tell you that putting in strong information systems can help stabilize regions and get more people participating in the economy and hopefully in the long term that will lead to a more prosperous life for all.

But, really, is the Internet a human right?

Yes absolutely, said La Rue.

"...All states need to have a policy of universal access," he said recently in an interview on CBC.

"...I'm not talking about Internet for weekend log cabins in the mountains

"(But)...why should people in Toronto or Ottawa or Montreal have Internet (while) the aboriginal population or northern populations do not?"

No longer can human rights be confined to just thinking about violations in the context of summary executions or torture. Now people have to understand that freedom of expression is also an obligation of the state to fulfill, said La Rue.

Canada has set a target for 98 per cent of Canadian households to have access to broadband Internet by end of 2012.

But British journalist and author James Harkin ( Cyburbia: The dangerous idea that's changing how we live and who we are ) said recently: "I think it makes a nonsense of any idea we have of human rights."

He describes the idea of Internet as a human right as a "phantom" right.

"...(They) can only be claimed by intermediaries like NGOs (non governmental organizations) or expensive lawyers and I think it makes a mockery of the whole idea of what it is to have rights and I think it ends up disenfranchising ordinary people and de-politicizing social issues like access to resources."

A look back at the UN over the last couple of decades does show a move by the organization to identify social issues and access to resources as rights. But in many cases the ordinary citizen due to turmoil cannot claim those rights.

Are we confusing the freedom to use social media with having a political voice? Do they now go hand-in-hand?

Said Harkin: "When we tweet often no one is listening and it can be an excuse or a distraction from really getting involved in politics so I think it is very dangerous to make that equation between real participation politically and simply typing things into the Internet."

There is also the very real problem of asking states to secure the Internet as a right and then expecting those in power to refrain from locking it down when things aren't going the way they want. That may be an unlikely scenario in Canada but it is a reality in China, with its 450 million users.

Can we really assume that when people are fighting for freedom they are fighting to tweet? That may be part of the equation for sure, but surely they are fighting for real democratic rights.

But the issue will not be going a way any time soon. A BBC survey found that almost four in five people around the world believe that access to the Internet is a fundamental right.

The survey of 27,000 adults across more than two-dozen countries found strong support for access.

And for our part, how many of us feel total frustration when we settle at a coffee shop table, tap on our electronic devices and find no access to the Internet? But really is it a right?