TOC Human rights, tactics or principles? Your Turn

January 10, 2012

Vinton Cerf (1) has earned the right to speak about the Internet. So when he writes in a New York Times editorial that "Internet access is not a human right" (*), we ought to pay attention. First we are concerned, no matter who we are, second his position runs counter to the current trend.

Indeed, can we have too many rights? Vinton Cerf thinks so and his argument is compelling. "Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself" and progress is bound to make such enablers redundant. Internet has given us an unheard-of "abilitity [...] to communicate, organize and publicize everywhere, instantaneously". But tomorrow may well relegate Internet to history books while freedom of speech endures for ever, we hope.

Separating means from ends, Vinton Cerf goes on to stress the hierarchy of rights. He ranks civil rights below fundamental human rights such as "freedom from torture or freedom of conscience", singled out as examples. Yet going too far would be dangerous. Does he want to give the impression that property is a lesser right? Why not stick to the original list, i.e. "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression" (2)?

Even if we approve the restraint Vinton Cerf wants to put on popular enthusiasms, it does not follow human rights will stop their expansion. As an enabler, technology creates new expressions of ideal rights. The reason behind my fillips is precisely to argue how the right to property for all, as proclaimed by the French Revolution (2), should today cover our personal data which the Internet has made both so valuable and so easy to steal.

Notice how the proponents of Big Data, who enrich themselves on trampling these very rights, turn Vinton Cerf's position into a weapon. They present as inevitable the current trade-off between online interactions and eprivacy. How convenient for them then when technologies which invalidate their claims are studiously ignored. If you do not like the end, isn't it justified to suppress the means?

No discussion of right inflation however should fail to mention what truly limits any human right, even the most sacred. Man lives in society and the rights of any of its members are necessarily bounded by the rights of all others. Not only that but the latter impose duties on the former.

Notice for instance how the Declaration of 1789 declares "a common contribution is essential to the maintenance of the public forces and for the cost of administration [and] should be equitably distributed among all the citizens in proportion to their means" (2). Tax-averse Americans beware.

No matter how society controls technological means and adjudicates the correct extent of our human rights and duties, Vincent Cerf stresses "we [, the engineers,] must be conscious of our civil responsibilities in addition to our engineering expertise". This proposition is noble. Contrast this attitude with the paean sung by Leo Melamed to the God of Hight Frequency Trading (**).

HFT enables "the execution of complicated, algorithmic-based trades". Leo Melamed denies this technology bears any responsibility whatsoever in market instabilities such as the "flash crash of May 6 2010". How can he when the causes behind this very event remain unexplained to this day?

Talking about the human traders against whom he once competed, he writes "it never occurred to me to pass a law to cut them down to my speed". Is he insinuating there should be no difference in moral perspective between a mere market participant and the regulator of the very market?

However innovative, means are not ends in themselves, free to evolve far from society's supervision. Engineers should fulfill their paternal duties over the products of their hands. Vinton Cerf rightly defends this human decency against self-interested hubris. But he has let himself be blindfolded.

For engineers alone cannot and should not shape society's decisions. Vinton Cerf himself is too modest not to agree with this limitation. But then he should have inquired how society exercices its control in his own country, the vibrant birth place of both Internet and HFT.

In a democracy, control is expressed by the laws and regulations. As Vinton Cerf states, "ensuring [Internet] access is a policy made by the government". But what happens when democracy is corrupted at its core into pronaocracy?

Read John Plender on "how to improve the existing model of capitalism" (***). According to "Mancur Olson, a theorist on institutional economics", "nations decline because the lobbying power of [...] interest groups, whose growing influence fosters economic inefficiency and inequality".

John Plender writes about "greedy bankers". These fillips focus on biased data property laws. The result is the same. Successful lobbies turn into entrenched rent grabbers, in total contradiction with the essence of capitalism.

Engineers do not have the monopoly of creativity and in the past hundred years the United States have also become a vibrant source of artistic creation. The corresponding property, copyrights, have been given extraordinary protection by the law. For an illustration, turn to Patrick Healy reporting on "a spate of unusually aggressive undertakings by musical-theater estates" (****).

"Several of the Gershwins' trustees [...] described themselves as business-minded stewards more than as artistic tastemakers". Why not? Isn't it a sound assessment of their abilities? They still control the rights to masterpieces written eighty years ago. Again, why not? Come to think of it, with an appropriate and retroactive extension from 95 to 2,800 years after publication, Homer's royalties would go a long way to make Greece solvent.

It is true that Internet has made it prohibitively expensive and invasively offensive to defend such properties against digital piracy. But an easy theft is still a theft. What is repellent, what is outrageous is that, meanwhile, corporate pirates pilfer our personal data in impunity.

What can isolated individuals do? They claim Internet access is a human right. An exaggeration perhaps, but also a clever tactic. Making a human right out of Internet access blunts the excess of the so-called HADOPI laws, which by all means try to choke the one piracy lobbies do not like.

When Internet access is today's expression of our incontrovertible rights to liberty and resistance to oppression (2), it is naive to undermine its importance. As his employer, Google, abuses its legitimate right to property at the expense of ours, Vincent Cerf's position is even suspect.

The inflation of human rights is not the issue. It is that even the best intentioned man can be trapped by the current breakdown in social solidarity.

Philippe Coueignoux

  • (*) ....... Internet Access Is Not a Human Right, by Vinton Cerf (New York Times) - Jan 5, 2012
  • (**) ..... Protect the cheetahs of HTF from regulatory poachers, by Leo Melamed (Financial Times) - Jan 4, 2012
  • (***) ... The code that forms a bar to harmony, by John Plender (Financial Times) - Jan 9, 2012
  • (****) . The Songs Remain the Same, but Broadway Heirs Call the Shots, by Patrick Healy (New York Times) - Jan 9, 2012
  • (1) see Vinton Cerf in the wikipedia
  • (2) see article 2 in the 1789 Declaration of Human Rights in the wikipedia
January 2012
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