Is internet access really a human right?

France's highest court has ruled that the country's new online piracy law is "unconstitutional".

France's highest court has ruled that the country's new online piracy law is "unconstitutional".

The law allows persistent online file sharers to be disconnected by internet service providers, but judges said that internet access is a "human right" and that only a judge should be able to sanction disconnection.

Laurence Kay, a lawyer who specialises in digital law and intellectual property, explains why he thinks the judges are wrong, as the UK government gears up to release its own policy with this week's Digital Britain report. 

Our lives are increasingly lived online. Through social networking sites, online banking and e-mail communications, both our business and social lives revolve around being connected.

If you cut somebody off from that network, it has a material impact on the way you live. Without connectivity, we can feel literally cut off - both in a technological sense but also in an emotional and human sense.

But does that mean access to the internet is really a human right? And does it not come with some obligations? If you have a mobile phone, you know that in order to have that service there is something you have got to do in exchange. If you get cut off because you didn't pay your bill, you wouldn't argue it's your human right to continue using that phone.

We are moving into a world where content is increasingly delivered over the networks, rather than through physical products. As we move from one world to the next, we need to make sure that the rules change and people are properly remunerated. The creative economy is dependent on it. It's very important that these rules work, so that people who make their livelihoods from developing content can continue to do so. What we cannot have is a "free for all", because then we simply won't get the content - if authors, for example, know they wont get paid, they won't be in a position to keep writing.

Broadly speaking we have got a system that works, but it needs to be tweaked in some areas. We need 21st century ways of dealing with things like finding out who owns things and clearing copyright. There also need to be exceptions - for example, some updates to existing exceptions to copyright law to enable libraries and similar institutions to carry out digital preservation. But we need to make sure the right people get the right rewards.

Ultimately, the solution is about developing better business models. Most people, if there's a legitimate alternative to buy content legally, will go for that. It's also about consumer attitudes - there's currently a "culture of free" and there's an expectation that you will be able to get these things for free. We need evolution of consumer attitudes, but it's a huge process of change.

Laurence Kaye is a solicitor who specialises in digital law. He has been appointed by the UK's Strategic Advisory Board For Intellectual Property Policy (SABIP) as one of five members of its newly created Copyright Expert Panel. He’s also a regular blogger on digital media law issues.

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