Yesterday afternoon I joined colleagues from SCVO’s Digital Participation team at an event led by Professor Michael Fourman of Edinburgh University, in conjunction with the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, asking ‘Is the Internet a Human Right?’.

An excellent turnout promised an exciting debate and responses came quick when the audience were asked to consider what those who aren’t online are unable to do: find the best deal, claim benefits easily, keep in touch with family and friends, or even buy tickets to festival events. It was clear that many people felt that being unable to connect to or use the internet well puts you at a significant disadvantage.

We also discussed that areas like education, business development, entrepreneurship etc. gain huge benefits from the internet with, for example, previously inaccessible markets opened up and vast educational resources made freely available. And as Professor Fourman pointed out, the internet is now an integral part of our culture; by denying people access to the internet you are in essence denying them access to a common culture.

After looking at the benefits of the internet we were asked to consider if the internet was a dangerous idea. Data collection (one audience member stated the internet “uses us without telling us”), internet addiction, misinformation (including uncorroborated information) and cybercrime were all listed as hazards. The question of internet anonymity (should organisations such as the government be allowed to monitor our online footprint or, as the European Court of Justice has ruled, do we have the right to be forgotten?) provoked a lively discussion, with most of the audience considering this surveillance a threat to the right to a private life.

The debate concluded with a discussion of the language of rights and whether the focus should be more on education and teaching internet users to use it properly and safely as the enabling tool it is designed to be.

A final question from an audience member was whether it is now even possible to choose to live outside the internet. In an increasingly computerised world and with (especially in the UK) many services becoming digital by default perhaps the more prescient question is do we have a right to not be on the internet? Can we survive – and, indeed, thrive – without it?

Ultimately, it is perhaps too early to argue that the internet is a Human Right but there’s little doubt that it allows us to be better informed of what our human rights are; to be more empowered to act when human rights breaches occur; and to be connected to the wider world in a way which was never previously possible. As I said earlier, it’s an enabling tool, and like all tools it can be abused. But the internet is fundamentally designed for a purpose; and that purpose should surely be seen as an essential one.

There two more probing events from The Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas on issues to do with the internet, data and other things digital:

And I’ll be sharing more about the content of the events in future blogs, so watch this space!