Earlier this week, The Independent reported on ACTA, a secretly negotiated global treaty that may determine the response of many countries to the offence of online copyright infringement. One of the potential punishments that's invariably floated during such discussions is the withdrawal of internet access for those accused of it – indeed, that's one of many absurd provisions contained within the latest incarnation of the UK's Digital Economy Bill. And this raises the question of whether internet access qualifies a human right.
Fifteen years ago the idea would have seemed ridiculous; web surfing was a luxury enjoyed by those who enjoyed messing about with computers. But times change quickly. And, while the UN makes vague noises of approval, several countries have ruled that internet access is indeed sacrosanct. Estonia decided as much a decade ago; the French High Court said so last year as it threw out a proposed "three-strikes-and-you're-out" law against music piracy; Finland went even further last October, ruling that 1Mb broadband was a legal right for its citizens. But those behind ACTA and the Digital Economy Bill – undoubtedly influenced by powerful lobbying from the media – instead echo the words of that great thinker, Lily Allen: "But stealing's not really a human right, is it?"
No, and nor is looking at porn, listening to Norwegian death metal or anonymously insulting C-list celebrities. The frivolous nature of 99 per cent of the things that the internet is used for make it easy to scoff when the words "human right" are used in the same sentence. But the increasing role the net plays in the democratic process highlights the problem of banning people from it. The online relationship between the British state and its citizens is expanding all the time: ventures such as Data.gov.uk and Directgov, independent websites holding councils and MPs to account, online petitions and so on. These days the easiest access to those that govern us is via the internet, while an activity such as jobseeking is getting increasingly difficult without web access.
The Chartered Institute for IT is highlighting this issue in the run-up to the election with a website, Savvycitizens.bcs.org; its concern is that within a couple of years, lack of internet access won't just deprive people of the ability to watch videos of kittens on YouTube; it will seriously marginalise them. To which you could say, well, don't risk being cut off and marginalised by breaking copyright law. But have a look at your iPod. Be honest. You're breaking copyright law. Technology, once again, has outpaced the statute book – and no matter what the Government says, you can't criminalise and punish an entire generation.
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