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Is Internet access a human right?

The Facebook's stand installed near the 'Caravan of Freedom', at the government's square in Tunis, Tunisia on January 28, 2011. In this stand the people take into account the requests, testimonies and documents of the inhabitants of the western south on theirs situations, the exactions of the police force and other. It's a team of Facebook's members and bloggers associated for some with 76 Tunisian members of Anonymous the morning with the 6th day of the 'Caravan of Freedom' on the Government's square. Photo by Nicolas Fauque/ABACAUSA.COM
The Facebook's stand installed near the 'Caravan of Freedom', at the government's square in Tunis, Tunisia on January 28, 2011. In this stand the people take into account the requests, testimonies and documents of the inhabitants of the western south on theirs situations, the exactions of the police force and other. It's a team of Facebook's members and bloggers associated for some with 76 Tunisian members of Anonymous the morning with the 6th day of the 'Caravan of Freedom' on the Government's square. Photo by Nicolas Fauque/ABACAUSA.COMNicolas Fauque / Abaca

While most people, including most Egyptians, took Internet access for granted as a constant, the suddenness of Egypt's Internet shutdown raises the question: Is access to the Internet a human right?

The vast majority of urban Egyptians, 78 percent, feel that it is, according to a BBC World Service survey conducted in December 2009 in Egypt's largest cities. In fact,  55 percent responded that they "could not cope without it." Ironically, only 6 percent of the surveyed Egyptians felt that state censorship of Internet content was a chief concern — the same percentile as the U.S.

But when the Internet is taken away, as it has been in Egypt, people feel as though their rights have been stripped.

"It's freedom of expression that is a long-standing core right," Neil Hicks, international policy adviser for Human Rights First, told msnbc.com. "Restriction from the Internet is a violation of the right of free speech."

But the Internet has increasingly become the core medium for speech, especially speaking out against one's government. "This is particularly so in repressive countries where other means of communication have long been controlled by the state," Hicks said. "The Internet and social networking that it permits have enabled activists to get around those traditional forms of censorships."

Even in regimes where the government uses sophisticated technologies to monitor Internet communications, there is a net gain for to free speech. "We saw that in Tunisia. The government was monitoring Facebook posting, and using snooping technology to crack down on the protests," said Hicks. Yet, he adds, "The communication powers that these technologies permit are greater than the danger."

Outrage around the world centers on this issue. Cynthia Wong, international project director for the Center for Democracy & Technology, released a statement criticizing companies for complying with a demand that so clearly violates understood rights: "Egypt's actions demonstrate how vulnerable mobile and Internet access companies are to pressure from government to take actions that directly harm human rights," she wrote.

"While we appreciate that some companies involved have acknowledged their role, events unfolding across the region underscore how critical it is for companies operating in these risky environments to have robust strategies to push back on government demands inconsistent with rule of law and respect for human rights."

According to the BBC World Service survey, 79 percent of the 27,000 respondents, across 26 countries world wide, do think access to the Internet is a fundamental right. Most Americans feel that it is, too.

But when the same question was posed by our friend Joel Johnson on the tech blog Gizmodo, the comments were far from unilateral. In fact, many commenters responded — thoughtfully — that Internet access can't possibly be a right:

"I can't classify media access as a right to every human," said commenter Riff-Raff. "Clean water, shelter, and adequate food to prevent starvation should be rights to every person; sadly they are not, in any country. There are far too many steps to accomplish first before Internet access can be considered a human right."

Another commenter, _Stormin, put it into economic context: "It's no more a right than a computer, electricity, a home, and a job to pay for those things."

Despite the surprisingly overwhelming mass of naysayers, there were reasonable arguments in support of this right.

"If we can't communicate, we can't organize, if we can't organize, then we are reduced to power of a single individual," said commenter gary_7vn. "Without the ability to communicate we are nothing."

Perhaps the most cogent argument in support came from commenter John Addis: "There are certain technological advances that are such leaps forward in human evolution that they do, in fact, become human rights. Vaccines, for example. Potable water. I believe the Internet has become one as well."

Though it's clearly a debate that has no single good answer, most would agree that something considered a constant, when stripped away, creates a massive vacuum of insecurity. Says the BBC World Service study, "Egyptian users are more likely than others in the Africa/Middle East region to indicate a dependence on the Internet." Though they were keen to observe that dependence before, they've probably never felt that dependence quite like they do now that it's unavailable.

Still, Hicks said, the closure may not have as great an impact as the Egyptian government may have hoped. "It may be a case, in Egypt, of shutting the door after the horse has bolted." The people are mobilized, they are acting. In many regards, the Internet has already done its job.

So, what do you think? Is Internet access your right? Or a privilege?

More on the crisis in Egypt from Technolog:

• 'This is about social networks that are beyond the reach of Mubarak'

• What the Egyptian government doesn't want you to see

• Infograph: Egypt drops off the Internet

Catch up with Wilson on Twitter at @wjrothman, or join our conversation at the Technolog Facebook page.