Opinion

The fourth generation of
human rights


Mohamad Mova Al 'Afghani, Goettingen, Germany

Man has been quite successful in conceptualizing human rights, which can be divided into three different generations.

The first generation deals mostly with negative rights (i.e. the right not to be subjected to coercion) such as freedom of religion, free speech and the right to a fair trial.

The second generation of human rights concerns positive rights (i.e. the right to be provided with something by others) such as the right to be employed, housing and health care.

These rights were triggered by World War II and are encapsulated in the International Covenant on Civil, Economic and Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR).

The third generation of rights are mostly environmental rights (i.e. sustainable development) and they are generally still in the form of loosely binding laws, such as the Rio and Stockholm declaration.

However, today civilization is at the beginning of the knowledge age, an age where most populations are presumed not to work in agriculture or industry but in producing knowledge instead. Unlike agriculture, which is affected by climate or industry that pollutes the environment, this type of production is loosely interconnected with natural conditions as it only digests and produces one thing: information.

Living things are biologically nothing but genetic codes and -- through molecular manufacturing -- materials are physically nothing but a set of atomic structures. Thus, in the knowledge age, reality is no different than information itself.

One of the main problems in the knowledge age is how information is being managed by the legal system. The nomenclature used by the legal system is ""intellectual property"" (IP) and the name itself bears a fallacy as it attributes information to property, whereas, the characters of information significantly differ from tangible properties or ""goods"".

The first difference is with regards to scarcity. Goods are valuable because they are scarce, once they are consumed, their values decrease. Information on the other hand is abundant. Scientists rely on information from their predecessors to create new theories and authors rely on information from previous writers to write books.

So, if information enters the public sphere (i.e. it's ""consumed""), the quantities are multiplied and not reduced.

The second difference is in form. Goods can exist only once in space and time and while information is abstract, it can exist in many heads and it transcends time.

The third difference is with regard to its divisibility. Goods can be divided between people but information is indivisible.

The fourth difference is multiplication. ""Information wants to be free"". The theory of memetics points out that ideas infect the brain like a virus spreading itself in an organism. This is the reason why the inquisition and the burning of books by fascists failed to stop ideas from spreading. Property, on the other hand, does not multiply itself.

Now, if someone acquires property through violent means, or through threats, they can be called a thief because they coerced the victim into parting with their belongings. Coercion, as has been discussed above, is an encroachment on negative rights or free will. For this reason, the guilty party could face criminal charges, perhaps ending up in jail.

However, if a person copies music and distributes it on the net, it cannot be regarded as theft or piracy as they did not take anything from the authors, nor coerced them into giving them something against their will.

The criminalization of IPR violations is an absurdity as there are no parties that actually sustain physical or psychological injuries.

The question goes further, does a person actually have the right to take, modify and reproduce information available in the public sphere? If I know a patented method for curing AIDS, do I have the right to distribute that information over the net? The answer should be ""yes"". Exchanging information is a form of human right, a form of negative right.

The rights to education, health and housing are considered positive rights as they oblige other people to put in some effort in order to materialize these rights, for example, by paying tax.

On the contrary, the right to information is a negative one as it does not in any way reduce the rights of others.

Parallel to the aforementioned arguments, some experts foresee the emergence of the so-called ""economy of abundance"", a condition in which competition for resources is rendered obsolete -- something that contradicts the traditional malthusian perception.

Unfortunately, the right to information has not become the main attention in developing countries as the people are still occupied with the first generation of human rights.

It is feared that by the time free speech, gender problems, freedom of religion and other rights are guaranteed, the population in the developing world will be trapped by an information gap due to the lack of communication technology and the coercive legal system.

In developed countries, some people have concluded that the overprotection granted by laws jeopardizes the free market. Expensive fees for IP registration and the likelihood of disputes, accompanied by its lousy enforcement, illustrate the infectivity and inefficiency of the current system.

The act of extending IP protection has also been labeled as ""rent seeking"", as the real value of the protected knowledge disappears or is significantly reduced. These movements, if they become a binding international instrument, will form the fourth generation of human rights.

The writer (movanet@yahoo.com) is a lawyer, lecturer and DAAD scholar in Germany.

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