DC Summit Takes Up Community Wireless

Published August 1, 2008

Panels at the International Summit for Community Wireless Networks in Washington, DC recently aired the human rights implications of broadening Internet access.

Analysts responding to the summit were optimistic about Internet technology’s potential to combat rights abuses and foster improved education, but they expressed concerns about a false understanding of individual rights leading to more government power over access to information.

The summit, held May 28 through 30, was hosted by the New America Foundation, Champaign-Urbana Community Wireless Network Foundation, American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Science and Human Rights Program, and Acorn Active Media Foundation.

Summit discussions focused on community wireless networks (CWNs), made possible by cooperation among groups of computer hobbyists or a large number of ordinary Internet users, which facilitate a decentralized approach to Internet access.

Unlike commercial or municipal Internet providers, CWNs are typically available to users at no monetary cost and have few restrictions on access to content and bandwidth use.

Exposing Abuses

A summit panel on “Using Wireless Networks to Protect Human Rights” discussed how “community wireless can directly contribute to human rights work around the world. Especially in poorer countries, building the communication capacity of local human rights groups can be vital for the protection of marginalized or threatened communities.”

The panel emphasized the importance of access to information for the detection of human rights abuses and the ability to organize effective countermeasures.

Charles Steele, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics at Hillsdale College, said information technology is crucial to rights enforcement. Steele has taught in Russia, China, and the Ukraine, and he observed, “The Internet has proved very useful for communication with areas undergoing political repression, natural disasters, and other threats. Information can flow in, or out; both are important.”

Robert Murphy, Ph.D., an adjunct scholar for the Ludwig von Mises Institute, discussed how CWNs and other Internet technologies can mobilize public opinion to oppose rights abuses.

According to Murphy, “Public opinion can be very strong in certain circumstances, but only if the public is made aware of injustices. A totalitarian ruler’s ability to maintain control is greatly reduced if his people have access to the outside world. That is why propaganda and censorship are so important in a totalitarian society.”

Murphy said he hopes such censorship and propaganda will be rendered ineffectual by decentralized access to information, provided in part by CWNs.

Could Help Developing World

The summit panel on “CWNs and the Developing World” strove to “define the successes and challenges facing community wireless initiatives in the developing world.” The topic elicited strong responses from market-oriented economists regarding the potential of CWNs and broadening Internet access in developing countries.

Steele compared two economics programs he taught in the former Soviet Union–one that did not facilitate easy Internet access and another that did.

He recalled, “The difference was enormous. In the first instance, the materials to which we had access were primarily those of the university library–useless old Soviet publications no one would ever want to read. In the second, good Internet access put Western libraries, research institutes, working papers, and the like at everyone’s fingertips.”

Steele also recalled his experiences teaching in Beijing. “While there we found a way to circumvent blocked Western Web sites that dealt with ‘forbidden’ topics like Tibet and Taiwan,” he said. Internet access enabled Steele’s students to explore controversial issues without being confined to state-sanctioned materials.

Steele anticipates large information databases like JSTOR (a concatenation of “Journal Storage,” one of the largest academic journal databases) will eventually be easily accessible to students worldwide. In order for that to happen, however, basic Internet access is necessary. Steele expressed hope that “perhaps CWNs would be part of the solution” to the dilemma of getting such access.

Right to Information Claimed

Some analysts expressed concern summit organizers and panelists had a misunderstanding of human rights. This misunderstanding, they suggested, might undermine well-intentioned efforts at liberating individuals through access to technology.

A summit panel on “Defending the Right to Communicate” issued a statement which held in part, “The right ‘to seek, receive, and impart information’ … is a universal right enshrined in international human rights law.”

The statement was inspired by Article 19 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive, and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

Steele interprets Article 19 as “simply freedom of speech and press updated to include all media.” He added, “I do indeed believe individuals have these inherent rights.”

Murphy, however, warned of an alternative interpretation of the right to information: “The [panel’s] statement concerns me in that some groups may seek government funding to set up and run [CWN] services. I don’t think that is an appropriate use of tax dollars, and moreover if the goal is to reduce government power over vulnerable people, it doesn’t make sense to go to governments and ask them to control information networks.”

Murphy said the language used at the summit might be used to construe the right to information as a positive right to Internet access or other devices for spreading information. He prefers to speak of the general right to private property instead of a specific right to information.

“If I want to pay the market price for those items, and sellers are eager to trade with me, then it would be a violation of our rights if the government or some other group came in and blocked the transaction,” Murphy said.

Stephen Hicks, Ph.D., professor of philosophy at Rockford College, shared Murphy’s concerns. He said, “The rights language [of the summit panel] is dangerously misapplied here.

“If some people have a ‘right’ to information, then other people have an obligation to provide it,” Hicks continued, “and that opens the door to various methods of compulsory redistribution. Information, like other valuable things, should be voluntarily exchanged on terms agreeable to those who have proper claims to it.”

Gennady Stolyarov II ([email protected]) is editor-in-chief of The Rational Argumentator, an online magazine advocating the principles of reason, rights, and progress.