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The Internet as a Right

Being online increasingly affects our ability to exercise fundamental
human rights. So how can we ensure its access for all?

The Covid-19 pandemic made one thing very clear: for the many people restricted to their homes, an internet connection – for schooling, work, medical help, commerce, and communication – started to look more like a necessity than a luxury. Indeed, the pandemic served to further deepen the digital divide in an increasingly digital society. In the future, as all corners of society become even more dependent on connectivity, the unconnected might well feel increasingly digitally disenfranchised.

But what if internet access was established as a right, much as access to water, food, or healthcare are today? That was the aim of a resolution passed by the United Nations in 2016, albeit a non-binding one. It was a step towards a broader recognition that many of the things we already consider rights today are becoming more and more dependent on internet access. Equal access to work is one example. This right was codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights in the pre-internet era. Today, with many job postings only existing online, applying for work most often requires online access.

According to Dr. Jack Barry, research associate at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Public Interest Communications, the ability to maintain many other fundamental rights now increasingly depend on internet access:

“The internet has become the primary way to communicate, but also a device for work, a marketplace, and the best way to share ideas. Covid has revealed to governments, organisations, and employers alike why they really need people to have internet access at home,” says Barry. “But people are also seeing that their other rights – freedom of speech, for example – are not really protected without the right to internet access. Covid only strengthened that argument because it exposed the shocking disparities between those with and without access.”

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This is why some thinkers on the topic consider internet access as being more of an auxiliary human right rather than a right in itself – necessary to prevent more rights from becoming useless.

What of, say, the relationship between internet access and the right to an education, as the Covid era’s remote schooling highlighted? Or the right to participate in elections when so much campaigning is now online, not to mention increased use of online voting? Or of freedom of speech in an era when the internet is considered the de facto public forum? Ukrainian civilians, notes Dr. Merten Reglitz, senior lecturer in global ethics at the University of Birmingham, have been vocal in calling for assistance in the provision of water, food, shelter – and internet access.

Certainly, lack of access may be one problem in fulfilling fundamental rights. Access being removed is another. A report from the UN Human Rights Office published in the Summer of 2022 stresses the negative ramifications it has when governments switch off the national internet infrastructure, ban access, or purposefully limit bandwidth. Instances of partial or total internet shutdowns are becoming more commonplace, with Iran proving the most topical example. In response to growing protests in the country, the Iranian government began disabling the internet in parts of Tehran in addition to shutting off access to certain social media and messaging platforms. But Iran is not alone: 74 countries enacted 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 – often at massive economic cost nationally, and with knock-on effects internationally – particularly during heightened political tensions and rarely with any official reason given.

In other words, the internet is recognised by these countries as a tool of freedom of expression. And they don’t like it. Small wonder too that a growing number of authoritarian states are keen to develop a national internet over which more pervasive control could be exerted: the so-called ‘splinternet’. Syria, for example, has just one, easy manipulated internet provider. But then liberal states have been willing to interfere with the access of private citizens too.

That all this matters is, arguably, only the case if a lack of internet access really does limit people in exercising their fundamental rights. And the first in a series of ‘internet deprivation’ studies seems to suggest that it does. The University of Haifa has conducted controlled experiments in which participants (controlled for age, education, and technological proficiency) were challenged to complete two tasks, either with or without the aid of the internet. The first task was to find out which member of the Israeli parliament submitted a particular bill, the second was to express themselves regarding a political topic to a wide audience. One group was allowed to use all available resources, including the internet; the other group was denied internet access. Unsurprisingly, 89% of the subjects in the first group completed the tasks; only 12% of the internet-deprived group managed to do so.

Lack of access is a very real problem too: according to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), internet penetration rates only passed the 50% mark globally in 2017. And, according to a 2020 UNICEF report, two thirds of the world’s school-age children do not have access to the internet in their homes. Those that do have it, predictably, tend to be those with parents who are wealthier. Mobile telephony likewise remains too expensive for many in the developing world, and often limited to the most well-off areas.

But it’s not that much better in the developed world: half of the US population is not using the internet at broadband speeds, either because of a lack of local infrastructure, because the service is too expensive, or because they lack the skills. Five percent have no access at all.

Small wonder that the last decade has seen some countries declare internet access to be a right, with Finland and Mexico being among the nations that have taken the first steps to making national coverage a reality. Among ideas explored have been repurposing community centres or libraries as free internet access hubs and offering subsidies for citizens to buy access at home.

Yet it’s far from clear that policies enacted by some countries over recent years, including President Biden’s Internet for All initiative, are going about solving this problem the right way. To start with, there’s the need for accurate maps of today’s broadband coverage which is currently a complex web of pockets. Barry argues that the challenge is less about providing the infrastructure, which by some measures would be cheaper than building a road or sewer network, and more about providing the devices with which to access the internet. Recycling of devices which are still functional, if no long cutting-edge or fashionable, could provide the solution.

And while the ITU, which in 2019 launched a project with UNICEF to connect every school to the internet, has noted that connecting rural populations is a “formidable challenge,” others have argued that seeking to connect greater swathes of geography is not the right approach. “Where does that stop? Do we run cables out to the most remote villages?” asks Barry. Rather, it’s argued, what’s required is to connect greater numbers of populations.

According to a Tufts University study, meeting the needs of sparsely populated locations unserved by internet provision would come at the expense of serving the needs of those in densely populated urban communities “who live in proximity to the available infrastructure but lack access to affordable broadband.” The study notes that the number of people affected by the ‘broadband gap’ is three times greater in urban areas than in rural areas.

There is also the problem, as illustrated in the Tufts study, that closing the digital divide requires local solutions, pertinent to the community, terrain, and so on. Barry likewise believes that efforts to close the digital divide will be hampered by taking a binary response (access or no access) rather than seeing the situation as more of a “gradations of access divide” requiring a suitably multi-faceted response according to factors like language, education, income, and available technology.

And, of course, that’s not the only barrier to ensuring that the right to internet access is made a reality. Reframing internet access as a need, rather than a want, will inevitably entail more government regulations (even if, in the US, at least 17 states have laws prohibiting broadband being treated as a public utility). Service providers and other companies that profit directly from the internet might also be expected to lobby hard to minimise government interference. And, further down the line, if internet access does come to be seen as a right, one might in time expect the content of the internet to face review too.“We can try to force internet providers to spend some part of their profits on expanding their services or look to taxing the likes of Google or Facebook to expand it too, since their business relies on the internet,” suggests Reglitz. “The internet has been a kind of wild west so far, with many tech companies like Google and Facebook only now starting to recognise the problems with their behaviour. But some kind of legal requirement on these players to act seems to be the way we’re going now.”

And yet with the move to ‘free’ and ‘ubiquitous’ internet access also come great opportunities, not least the boon to economic activity that may follow: Northwestern University says that a 10% increase in broadband penetration is estimated to increase national GDP by 1.2%. It could also provide the chance to check tech companies’ sharing and monetising of personal data.

“I don’t think most people even think about whether we should be helping those who don’t have internet access here or abroad to get it,” says Reglitz. “I think people still tend to think of internet access as a luxury, as something to watch Netflix on. Yes, that may be what most people use the internet for, but rights are social guarantees against standard threats, in the way that you might have an entitlement to police protection from being assaulted, for example. And, if we’re going to make internet access a right, that needs to come with better protections and some form of minimal entitlements to support those who need it too.”

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