Internet Access as a Human Right

I am constantly connected, both at home and at work, often via multiple devices. And it’s not just my phone and laptop, increasingly service apps are online – I can control my apartment temperature  from the other side of the world via an app. Lots of services are online, I do all my banking online, I’ll do my tax return online soon. I’ll shop online, including for dinner delivered. At work I’m online all the time. My functional life is online – if wifi goes down I’m really stuck. So internet is hugely important. But is it a human right?

The original UN Declaration of Human Rights doesn’t mention the internet, but then it was written in the 1940s so that’s not surprising. However it does list a number of rights that are increasingly accessed via the internet, including the right to;

  • take part in the government of his country,
  • equal access to public service in his country.
  • work, to free choice of employment
  • education.
  • participate freely in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

These are all available online

It’s only a matter of time before these are available only via the internet. It’s such a clear trend that in 2011 the UN declared internet access a human right, noting;

The Special Rapporteur underscores the unique and transformative nature of the Internet not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and to promote the progress of society as a whole.

But what action follows this declaration? How can governments ensure that access is fair? And what happens when fair access does not exist?

There are a lot of government and business initiatives to ensure universal access to the internet, although in many cases the individual would still need to provide the device;

  • Costa Rica, Greece, Spain, France, Finland and Estonia have taken legislative steps to enshrine internet access as a right in law.
  • India plans to roll out wifi to 2500 cities.
  • The UK government aims to turn thousands of public buildings into free wifi zones.
  • In the Netherlands network providers are finding ways to open use of customer hotspots.

But not all governments are doing so well. The Syrian regime seems to shut down the internet for hours or days at various times. China famously has “The Great Firewall“, which uses a range of blocking techniques to filter sites and content. And governments of democratic nations aren’t immune to the temptation to turn off internet access in times of crisis, as UK’s PM David Cameron showed during the London riots in 2011 (in this case it did not happen).

But even outside these extreme examples internet access remains very unequal. Jon Gosier, who has worked on some of the big issues of technology inequality, talks about how our thinking around technology as an improver of lives is flawed and asks the vital question – how do we include everyone?

There are a few organisations around the world working on ensuring full internet access, including A Human Right, which in 2012 campaigned to have a planned undersea cable moved 500km south so that it could serve the isolated island of St Helena. Their site and twitter feed appear somewhat moribund so it’s hard to judge real progress.

Alliance for Affordable Internet is a public-private partnership that works to provide affordable broadband and mobile access to the internet for everyone.

But the most interesting “bet” on securing global, universal access to the internet might come from the private sector. Elon Musk, CEO of SpaceX has a vision of creating a “space internet“. And Google have a mad idea involving balloons, called Project Loon, that might just work.

Image: Human Right | Zack Lee |  CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Internet is a Human Right

The internet is a human right, and everyone should have access.

Sounds far-fetched, we’re used to thinking of human rights as connected to security, equality, freedom; all the big stuff.

But Article 21 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights states

Everyone has the right of equal access to public service in his country.

A quick search online shows that many countries are putting their public/government services online including;

  • Australia
  • Canada
  • Egypt
  • India
  • Netherlands
  • New Zealand
  • UK
  • USA

The UN has run a survey (latest data 2012) looking at “e-government”, which evaluates how ready a government is to provide information and services online, and how ready a country is to use those services. A lot depends on the political and economic situation of the country, just compare Somalia and Sweden to see this difference.

The Charter also lists “the right to education” and “the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community”, both of which increasingly have an online dimension. Governments, including local governments, are also seeking citizen participation online for local decision making.

Across Europe internet penetration is high at about 73%. It reaches close to 93% in Netherlands, but that still leaves more than a million people not using the internet. Across the EU it’s a third of the population.

As governments move services online they reduce the offices and physical services at the same time. At what point to governments have a responsibility to make sure online access is available to all? At what point does the drive to rationalise services and put them online start to infringe people’s rights?

I’ve been managing the @i_am_europe twitter account this week, and posting on a digital theme. It’s got me thinking about governments role in digital. A week ago I resisted the idea that governments had a role to play in the digital world – an attitude that probably marks me as one of the “digital elite”. But discussing some of the issues around digital and reading up on the EU plans it makes sense that governments and international bodies take a role in shaping the digital world we live in, making it a fairer place.

You can read more about progress so far on the EU website for the Digital Agenda, from the site it seems that good progress has been made – it’s harder to assess the actions of national governments, which is where citizens might notice a difference.

Of course this doesn’t mean that governments should build and deliver a full suite of online services, but that there is a need for a digital strategy for a country, and a need for international co-operation.

In my digging around the internet I also found out about the World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, which, according to their website

The purpose of  World Telecommunication and Information Society Day (WTISD) is to help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the Internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies, as well as of ways to bridge the digital divide.

There is a call to add your local initiative to celebrate this day to the site – so far there’s just one event from Geneva, but there is time to add yours, the date of celebration is 17 May. I’d give you more detail, but to download the “circular letter from the ITU Secretary-General” I’m required to log-in for no good reason. I recall facing the same thing when I wanted to read some of the documents relating to the EU’s digital agenda – so I logged in using a fake identity out of peevishness.

The role of governments/regulatory bodies is about rules, policies and control. The internet world strives for openness and the technology lets us remove communications barriers. In my world people share ideas in 140 characters, there’s a dialogue across social media, books are co-created. Governments and regulatory bodies miss this mindset,  which begs the question; are they fit to lead a Digital Agenda?

Image: Internet, 5 minutes, $1.00 / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0