Page last updated at 17:05 GMT, Tuesday, 26 May 2009 18:05 UK

The digital age of rights

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The digitally deprived have rights too, says regular columnist Bill Thompson

President Sarkozy of France recently managed to get his Création et Internet law passed by the National Assembly, and if all goes well in the Senate then French internet users will soon find their activities being supervised by HADOPI, the grandly named 'Haute Autorité pour la Diffusion des Œuvres et la Protection des Droits sur Internet.'

The rights it is concerned with are not those of ordinary net users but of copyright owners, and especially the large entertainment companies that have lobbied so hard and so successfully for the power to force internet service providers to terminate the accounts of those accused of downloading unlicensed copies of music, films and software.

Once HADOPI is up and running rights holders will be able to go to it with evidence of illegal downloading, and it will issue banning orders to ISPs without any need for tiresome court proceedings.

The agency is deeply controversial, and may in fact be illegal under European law as proposed changes to EU telecommunications regulations seem likely to require the involvement of the courts in any disconnection.

But even if it is legal, it is still a bad idea and must be one of the most foolish, regressive and potentially damaging moves by a government that claims to want to capitalise on the internet's potential to transform society.

Bill Thompson
It's not that computers matter more than water, food, shelter and healthcare, but that the network and PCs can be used to ensure that those other things are available
Bill Thompson

The new law treats the internet as if it was simply a conduit for delivering the sort of mindless entertainment provided by most films, TV programmes and popular music and proposes to cut people off because their actions might damage the business model of one tiny sector of the economy.

But the net is far more than television with added e-mail. As digital rights campaigner Cory Doctorow put it in an impassioned article on this issue in The Guardian last year:

"The internet is only that wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press in a single connection. It's only vital to the livelihood, social lives, health, civic engagement, education and leisure of hundreds of millions of people (and growing every day)."

Cory is not alone in believing that net access is too important to be regulated solely in the interests of the entertainment industry.

Earlier this month Vivian Reding, the European Commissioner responsible for Information Society and Media, spoke of "a right to Internet access" and pointed out that the EU's new telecommunications rules "recognise explicitly that Internet access is a fundamental right such as the freedom of expression and the freedom to access information".


But if the argument against extra-judicial disconnection is so strong then surely a policy that lets network service providers keep millions of people from having a usable, fast and reliable connection to the internet must also be morally indefensible?

If it is unacceptable to cut people off from the network because their actions are commercially damaging to the record companies, why is it acceptable to offer them poor or no access to broadband and mobile internet just because providing the service is commercially unattractive to ISPs or network operators?

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And if we are to be encouraged to think of access to the internet as a fundamental human right, a prerequisite of having freedom of expression, should we not be prosecuting ISPs over the 'notspots' in their mobile or wi-fi coverage, the communities with no access to ADSL because of the telephone network was repaired with aluminium instead of copper, or the areas bypassed by the cable providers?

As a long-time contributor to Digital Planet, the BBC World Service programme about the impact of digital technology on people's lives, I've seen the growing awareness within the developing world that computers and connectivity matter and can be useful. It's not that computers matter more than water, food, shelter and healthcare, but that the network and PCs can be used to ensure that those other things are available.

Satellite imagery sent to a local computer can help villages find fresh water, mobile phones can tell farmers the prices at market so they know when to harvest.

The same arguments apply in the UK, but those of use who have easy, affordable and fast connectivity tend not to think of the plight of those who can't get online, just as we so often fail to notice the homeless people in our towns or let our eyes glide over deprived housing estates as we sit on the train.

Of course once the kids on the local council estate start using their new-found power to create mash-ups of their favourite bands or add soundtracks to the videos they upload onto the web we're sure to hear calls for their net access to be restricted in some way.

But at least they'll be able to organise a Facebook campaign for themselves, and get some attention from the rest of us. At the moment the offline masses lack a voice as well as an internet connection.

Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet.

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