On Cat Videos and Human Rights

08/15/2010 05:15 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

With the giggles of children and adults alike in the background, you know what's coming. Instantly, you hear a recognizable ballad and there appears a captive feline dancing, or for the more technically-inclined in video editing, singing along.

This is the "cat video" we have probably all seen some version of, whether emailed from a bored co-worker or our grandmother. While these videos are ridiculous by their very nature, protection of the vehicle by which these "cat videos" are disseminated is the same protection through which we can preserve something much greater: human rights online.

Hang with me for just a moment.

There is a gaping void in international human rights law concerning the Internet. A lack of treaty law as well as customary international law concerning human rights in the online world leaves those who are denied basic freedoms very little to turn to. While principles protecting free expression are codified in both the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the concept of Internet freedom is unknown in many countries.

In A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, John Perry Barlow wrote, "We will create a civilization of the Mind in Cyberspace. May it be more humane and fair than the world your governments have made before." In 2003, the first World Summit on Information Society (WSIS) convened with 175 countries. While it failed to come to an agreement on a framework for global Internet governance, what it did accomplish was to set out a general statement, a Declaration of Principles, that stated: "We reaffirm, as an essential foundation of the Information Society, and as outline in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, that everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression."

The United States, throughout its history, has positioned itself as a beacon of democracy, and, particularly, that of free speech and expression. Yet, neither Congress nor the Federal Communications Commission has taken any action to preserve these rights online within our own borders, most notably with the issue we have come to know as network neutrality. Congress has failed to enact legislation that would regulate the behavior of corporations, like Google and Yahoo, abroad when they have taken actions contrary to the civil and political rights of citizens, most notably in China. As the United States has been a leader in "all things democracy," it is essential for the United States to be a leader in the preservation of human rights online. Human rights online start here.

For those of us who got online in what was relatively early for the Internet in 1994, our experiences were the primitive AOL and chat rooms. Many could not have envisioned an Internet that would enable international awareness of revolution in places like Iran or a place where the virality of content spreads messages across the world within a handful of hours. The Internet we enjoy today was unimaginable to many of us even ten years ago, and to many, the Internet freedom we currently enjoy is unimaginable to our neighbors a few blocks away not to mention millions across the world.

As one of those privileged to live in the United States, one cannot imagine what promise the Internet must hold to someone living under a repressive regime: by opening the eyes of children to an unimaginable wealth of information, by allowing people to learn of rights enjoyed by others abroad or by serving as a cross-section of ideas that may lead to positive economic and social change.

A New York Times article today lauds competition as the answer to our "lack of Internet neutrality" woes. This competition does nothing to ensure that the people who currently lack access to the Internet, all of those on the other side of the digital divide who do not have the luxury of even reading a blog, or the ability of gaining access to the day's news, something that has become exceedingly difficult due to the shuttering of community newspapers, will be ensured access. These Internet issues do not exist in a vacuum.

In April 2008, while sitting at the Federal Communications Commission hearing on network neutrality at Stanford University, the seats may not have been filled that time with fillers sent by Comcast, but it was apparent that the FCC lacked the wherewithal to take a stand, whatever that may be, on the critical issues underlying content discrimination practices.

Today's solution proffered, and even accepted by many, is that corporate regulation will do. While we may feel comfort in the shiny veneers of corporate social responsibility measures, self-regulation in many instances has proven itself to be a failed experiment. This piece has no space for the laundry list of failed self-regulatory attempts. With the money that stands to be made from a pay-for-play tiered Internet access scheme, it is doubtful these companies can be relied upon to pave the way for freedom.

Cats have nine lives, but their videos may not. Beyond the silliness of much Internet content, there lies the path for speech and expression, the cornerstones of freedom. You may not want to throw your political confidence in our elected officials and regulatory bodies, but our freedom, as well as basic human rights for those abroad, will not be found in the pocketbooks of Google and Verizon.