Connecting to the Web: Freedom or Human Right?

BY Ray Suarez  February 24, 2012 at 2:13 PM EDT

Mexican journalist Sergio Sarmiento listens as former FCC Chairman Reed Hundt speaks at the Tecnologico de Monterrey campus in Mexico City. Photo by Ray Suarez.

MEXICO CITY | In January 1941, with the shadow of world war looming over the United States, President Franklin Roosevelt gave his State of the Union address. These days, no one knows it that way.

Today, it’s more familiarly known as The Four Freedoms speech. The president called for a world “founded upon four essential human freedoms.” It was a bold call for a view of human liberty updating and broadening the Bill of Rights; the Four Freedoms identified by FDR were:

  • Freedom of speech,

  • Freedom to worship God in your own way,

  • Freedom from want,

  • Freedom from fear,

… and all those freedoms, guaranteed everywhere in the world.

A year ago*, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton talked about a world transformed by the Internet, and tyrannical governments undermined by social networks, smart phones and personal computers, even as governments struggle to push back.

“There is no silver bullet in the struggle against Internet repression. There’s no ‘app’ for that. And accordingly, we are taking a comprehensive and innovative approach — one that matches our diplomacy with technology, secure distribution networks for tools, and direct support for those on the front lines.”

Some of the world’s poorest people have been able to bank, get reminders to take life-saving medicine, and get the latest news. More and more, the Internet has become a great leveler. But is there a Fifth Freedom? A freedom to connect?

This week, I was on the Mexico City campus of one of Mexico’s top technical universities, the Tecnológico de Monterrey, for a fascinating conference on the “Freedom to Communicate.”

Seven of every 10 Mexicans still have no Internet access, a number heavily concentrated among the country’s poorest people. Through a long day of conversation, speakers ranged from the hard-nosed and practical — supplying the infrastructure in poor and remote communities — and the visionary.

Alec Ross is Clinton’s senior adviser on innovation at the State Department. He told his audience that “protecting and preserving freedom is always a value. If you believe in universal rights in 2012, if you believe in free speech, if you believe in a free press, you have to believe in all these things on the Internet.

“The freedom to connect to the web is the freedom to connect to each other. It’s the 21st century’s first new human rights agenda.”

But later in the day, two experienced regulators, Reed Hundt, former chairman of the FCC, and Juan Ludlow of the Mexican Telecommunications Commission brought the conversation back down to Earth.

The pair considered the idea of connectivity as a right. Ludlow talked about the difficulties of widening access in a country as poor as Mexico, where a narrow group of telecom countries control almost all the wired and wireless services.

It’s been estimated that Mexicans pay $80 more a year for their cell phone service than people in other developing countries. Add up the bills of tens of millions of Mexicans, and that’s a lot of money — money going to profits for the companies that don’t get plowed into new infrastructure and new connectivity for Mexicans.

Hundt took the idea of a right to connect head on. He asked the audience who the guarantors of legal and human rights in most places in the world really are? Governments, Hundt said. He then asked the journalists, communications engineers, NGO leaders, professors, if they were ready to allow the Internet to be regulated by governments. He reminded us all that this amazing worldwide network had so far been managed by a widely dispersed group of stakeholders and remained beyond the reach of government.

If you accept that connectivity is a right, Hundt said, then you have to accept government involvement in insuring those rights as a pre-condition. Just a few weeks ago, Vint Cerf, widely regarded as one of the “fathers of the Internet,” questioned any attempt to identify Internet access as a civil right.

Sure, Cerf wrote in a New York Times op-ed, the Internet has become a powerful tool that has furthered the struggle for freedom, through events that “could never have happened as they did without the ability that the Internet offers to communicate, organize and publicize everywhere, instantaneously.”

Connectivity is not a human right, Cerf insisted, just a means to an end. It’s the ends, like freedom of speech we should be worried about, not the means, which change all the time.

Juan Ludlow, a longtime telecom executive in Mexico before joining the country’s equivalent of the FCC, said there was already a target level of broadband access, 80 percent, and a target price, the U.S. equivalent of $15 a month. Right now, those plans are just words on paper. There’s no plan, no structure, no enabling legislation.

When I asked Ludlow why poor Mexicans want the Internet when for millions merely having enough to eat and a decent place to live is already a challenge, he said when offered a choice between a new road and the Internet, more and more poor Mexicans choose the Internet. They believe it will bring a better life chances, better education and communications for themselves and their children.

Along with the ability to connect, much of the day’s conversation turned to the world of journalism and the ways it was changed by the online world. In my talk to students and professors at Tecnológico de Monterrey I described the struggle to adjust to the new realities of the information marketplace as rebuilding a jet while at cruising altitude between Los Angeles and New York. We don’t have the luxury of landing to do the work.

The relationship between producers and consumers of content has also changed radically. As the tools of production — cameras, phones, computers — have plummeted in price, more and more people are able to photograph, interview, write, edit, produce. Much of this work is being done for free as content producers are more concerned with having an audience than being paid for their work. These intertwined realities will have tremendous consequences for people who create content for a living, the authority of information workers, and the sources.

More serious than the growing pains of web journalism for Mexico is the constant threat to the lives of Mexican journalists. On the day we learned of the death of journalists in Syria, the conference talked about the scores of reporters killed in Mexico’s war with narcotics gangs.

The Mexican speakers through the day pleaded for an intensified commitment to democracy, freedom of speech and expression, all of which are in danger when the army is at war on a country’s own soil.

An election is coming in Mexico. After years of terrible loss of life and struggle against international criminals, the people of Mexico need information and more information, and need to make sure their wishes and demands for the future are heard by the candidates.

In the 1990s, hundreds of miles of American streets were torn up to string cables and fiber optic lines to carry services most customers hadn’t requested and didn’t know they wanted or needed. Even now, we aren’t using up all the available capacity north of the border. Meanwhile, only a tiny number of Mexicans are routinely able to get online.

Despite that wide gap between the two neighbors, said Joaquin Alvarado of American Public Media, “Our futures are forever linked. We will create economic opportunities and create freedoms in ways that have never happened before.” Alvarado challenged the tech-savvy young Mexicans in the audience to create the next innovations to rival Facebook and Google.

For all its tremendous success in recent decades, Mexico still has a long way to travel before her people can truly participate in the new world being opened by the web. The conference showed they are asking many of the right questions in 2012, and expecting to get answers.

Editor’s Note: Originally this blog post said Clinton’s speech was delivered this month, whereas it actually was February 2011.