One man’s human right is another man’s public good

A few weeks ago, my Networked Social Movements class went on a field trip to observe the protests against the the-proposed, now-passed cuts to the MBTA, the public transit system here in Boston.  While there, I saw and heard lots of people, in chants, slogans, and speeches, making statements along the lines of, “Public transit is a right.”

I don’t agree that public transit is a right.  I believe that public transit is awesome, I enjoy it and I wish there was more of it, both in Boston and nationwide.  It would be more accurate to say that I believe that public transit is a public good (in fact, in discussing these questions with some of my labmates, we came up with an alternate chant, “Public transit is a public good/From downtown to the hood,” which we’re rather proud of).  But my opinions of how public transit fits into the social construct are not what I want to talk about right now.

The question I primarily came away with that day is how the rhetoric of “rights” affect civil discourse.  When we call something as a “right,” how does that affect how we discuss that particular thing?  How does calling things that may not necessarily be rights affect how we talk about other things we consider rights, or future debates about rights?  Does it act as a diluting force?  How do we deal with rights, or potential rights, that are fundamentally matters of technological empowerment, rather than innate (dare I say, inalienable) capacities and aspects of the human condition?

A similar debate arose last summer, when the UN released a report which classified internet access as a human right.  This lead to a great deal of debate in the online community, particularly on the issue of, if internet access *itself* was a human right (as opposed to, say, the ability to freely communicate and assemble), how does that obligate governments to facilitate global access to the internet.  That report was primarily written in response to laws passed in France and the United Kingdom, which had recently passed laws which removed internet access for people repeatedly accused of violated copyright by downloading movies and such.  This brings up the question, did the UN report consider internet access a human right only in situation where the access was already available?  How does that construction (technologically-enabled rights only become rights when the technology becomes independently available in the market place) affect the conception of a human right?

Both public transit systems and the internet are technological systems which can be said to enable and facilitate rights which are widely recognized as human rights: the right to freedom speech and the right to freedom of movement (here I’m referring to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights for “widely recognized rights”).  When do technological systems which facilitate rights become rights themselves?  Are public transit systems and the internet fundamentally different than the justice system or modern medical technology, both of which are mentioned in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Articles 11 and 25), different enough that their status as “rights” should be different?

I am at the “whole lot of questions” stage of thinking about this issue.  If you have thoughts on the nature of human rights as relates to technological systems, please share them in the comments!

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