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Internet Access Rights: A Brief History and Intellectual Origins

33 Pages Posted: 26 Mar 2012 Last revised: 3 Jul 2015

Jon Penney

University of Oxford - Oxford Internet Institute; Citizen Lab, University of Toronto; Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society; Dalhousie University - Schulich School of Law

Date Written: September 1, 2011


If there is anything we have learned from recent protest movements around the world, and the heavy-handed government efforts to block, censor, suspend, and manipulate Internet connectivity, it is that access to the Internet, and its content, is anything but certain, especially when governments feel threatened. Despite these hard truths, the notion that people have a "right" to Internet access gained high-profile international recognition last year. In a report to the United Nations General Assembly in early 2011, Frank La Rue, the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, held that Internet access should be recognized as a "human right". The finding garnered much international attention and acclaim, but there has been little systematic scholarship exploring the report’s findings and right to Internet access set out therein. Helping fill this gap, this article explores the historical and intellectual origins of the idea of a right to Internet access as set out in the report, while also illustrating its political and legal foundations in international legal documents, humanitarian law, and a broader evolving international political context surrounding communications and the global free flow of information.

Keywords: Internet, Internet access, legal history, human rights, United Nations, freedom of expression, international law, special rapporteur, freedom of information, telecommunications history

JEL Classification: K10, K19, K33, L96

Suggested Citation

Penney, Jon, Internet Access Rights: A Brief History and Intellectual Origins (September 1, 2011). William Mitchell Law Review, Vol. 38, No. 1, p. 10, 2011 (invited contribution to special edition). Available at SSRN:

Jonathon Penney (Contact Author)

University of Oxford - Oxford Internet Institute ( email )

1 St. Giles
University of Oxford
Oxford OX1 3PG Oxfordshire, Oxfordshire OX1 3JS
United Kingdom

Citizen Lab, University of Toronto ( email )

Munk School of Global Affairs
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario M5S 3K7

Harvard University - Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society ( email )

Harvard Law School
23 Everett, 2nd Floor
Cambridge, MA Nova Scotia 02138

Dalhousie University - Schulich School of Law ( email )

6061 University Avenue
PO Box 15000
Halifax, Nova Scotia B3H 4R2

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