The Internet: A Human Right?

Professor Michael Fourman of the University of Edinburgh hosted this event as part of the Cabaret of Dangerous Ideas, a series of seminars and lectures taking place during the Fringe with the intention of giving audiences a chance to engage with topics normally confined to more academic settings.

Prof Fourman is clearly more than capable of speaking about our society’s ever increasing dependence on the internet.

Given the recent surveillance legislation rushed through Parliament, a symposium dealing with the internet and its status as a human right couldn’t be more timely. After informing the audience that the premise of the talk is based on his recent work with the Royal Society of Edinburgh (a copy of their report, entitled Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation, is available to audience-members on exit), Prof Fourman went on to suggest that those present could post their comments and responses on Twitter. However, after a quick show of hands indicating that a significant proportion of the audience weren’t users of the social media network, a good old fashioned Q&A format was pursued.

Prof Fourman is clearly more than capable of speaking about our society’s ever increasing dependence on the internet. He poses leading questions and ideas with the intention of encouraging those present to think about the extent to which we take this mass web of information, pictures, comments and code for granted, and how we may have neglected to give consideration to the possible ethical ramifications of this. However, the open-forum format did little more than slow down the flow of the event. Too often, the audience seemed to get bogged down in the specifics of how the internet affects day-to-day life rather than considering the “internet” as a concept.

The audience participation was indulged a bit too much, with the event being more than half-way through by the time Prof Fourman directed the conversation to provision of the internet as a public service. This brought up the (in my opinion, most pressing) concern regarding the extent to which the government should control or monitor the provision. Those present were notably reluctant to comment on this, with the exception of a distinct rumbling of discontent when one spectator suggested that, if you have nothing to hide, you should not object to being surveilled.

Unfortunately, this part of the topic was not dealt with in nearly as much detail as it deserves.

By the time the discussion turned to what constitutes a “human right”, the time allocated for the event has nearly expired. There was only a brief and concise outline offered by Prof Fourman on a society’s obligation to provide access to the internet, along with the problems that entail regarding how a central authority is to participate and regulate access.

A final point made by an audience-member (from what I gathered, a gentleman who contributed to the Royal Society report) on the inappropriateness of the discourse and language of human rights; in effect, how an emphasis on education of internet usage should be prioritised.

Ultimately, the event’s open-forum format detracted from the exigent nature of the subject matter. Perhaps a panel discussion would have allowed ideas to be addressed in more depth. The issues raised were interesting, some compelling, but not what you could call “dangerous”.

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The Blurb

The internet has unleashed the power of information, for good or ill. Society cannot function without it. Yet two thirds of the world’s population and almost one in six people in Scotland have never used the internet. Should no one be excluded? Or do we need a right to remain offline? Should individuals and corporations have unfettered rights to wield the power of information? Or should only governments’ rights be unfettered? Join us for a lively debate led by Professor Michael Fourman (University of Edinburgh). Supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh.

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