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Freedom of speech, freedom of association, the freedom to surf — the latter isn't in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, but according to four out of five people, web access is a human right fundamental to citizenship.

Out of the 27,000 people surveyed across 26 countries for the BBC World Service, 87 per cent of those with the internet say that access is a fundamental right, and 70 per cent without it want access. The internet is now regarded as a basic element of the infrastructure, along with roads, water and waste removal. Unfortunately, this comes at a time when, as the Queen warned in her Commonwealth Day message, being online is "an unaffordable option" for too many. 

At some point, the freedom to surf became vital to the social contract. And this has larger consequences. Companies like Google can't just operate as businesses. We begin to view them, perhaps unfairly, as guardians of this freedom. Which is why three Google executives in Milan were sentenced to six-month suspended jail terms over a cyber-bullying video posted by somebody else and which was taken down as soon as it was flagged up. Apparently, we expect Google to be the policeman of the web. 

This new "netizenship" has international consequences because of the internet's global nature. China's leaders are hoping that they can use the country's online voice to compete for a greater say in global affairs. This comes at a time when China is trying to assert itself internationally: the Foreign Minister, Yang Jiechi, said at the Munich security conference in February that China "deserves a hearing of one kind or another. We have one fifth of mankind. At least we deserve a chance to express our views on how things should be run in the world."

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