By Randall Lane
With little fanfare two weeks ago, a key United Nations commission made a remarkable statement: it declared, unambiguously, that broadband access is a basic human right, right up there with the right to healthcare, shelter and food. Not merely dial-up Internet connection (the U.N. has decreed that before), but the kind of fast, seamless service Americans find at any Starbucks. Think about what that implies: Freedom of expression now mandates the ability to broadcast that expression to the entire world.
I moderated a conversation at the Techonomy conference on Sunday afternoon with the man most responsible for this declaration, Dr. Hamadoun Touré, the head of the International Telecommunication Union. The ITU is the U.N. agency that oversees all things communication – radio spectrum, satellite paths, global digital standards and the like.
Touré argues that broadband will be increasingly required for education and healthcare. He also equates it with political self-destiny. Social media, in this view, mirrors the printing press a half-millennia ago; people without broadband effectively have no paper, no ink. Touré has some private sector heavies backing this call for a new right: Carlos Slim Helu (who Forbes again ranks above Warren Buffett and Bill Gates as the richest man in the world), Cisco’s John Chambers and Nobel Peace Prize winner Muhammed Yunus all serve with him on the ITU’s Broadband Commission, which made the declaration two weeks ago.
It’s a legitimate argument, which I saw up-close during a trip to Cairo this July. In Tahrir Square, T-shirt hawkers sell Facebook T-shirts – that’s the symbol of the revolution. The high point was a lunch I hosted for eight of the top political bloggers of the Egypt’s Arab Spring revolution. While I didn’t agree with many of them politically, especially some conspiratorial views about America, their determination to hold onto the freedoms they’d forged was enthralling. They are the Thomas Paines of their generation, and their pens, which faced down Mubarak’s sword, were powered by broadband.
Touré argues that broadband will similarly keep unsavory regimes in check. “Communication is a very powerful tool in the hands of the people,” he told me, “and when you take it out of their hands, it’s a bomb waiting to explode.” I’m more skeptical, fearing that many despots, having witnessed the power of broadband, will try mightily to prevent it from taking root (Iran, Syria, North Korea). You can’t even get Twitter in China.
Still, the idea of right-to-broadband seems increasingly legitimate. When I announced Toure’s declaration at Techonomy, applause broke out in the room. I don’t think that would have happened a year ago.