The Covid pandemic made one thing very clear: with many people restricted to their homes, an internet connection – for schooling, for work, for medical help, commerce and communication – started to look not like a luxury but vital. The pandemic served to further deepen the digital divide in an increasingly digital society. It’s a taste of things to come: as functioning in society becomes more dependent on connectivity, the unconnected might well feel increasingly digitally disenfranchised.
But what if having internet access was considered a right, much as access to water, food or healthcare is widely considered to be? That was a resolution passed by the United Nations in 2016, albeit a non-binding one. Indeed, according to Dr. Jack Barry, research associate at the University of Connecticut’s Center for Public Interest Communications, many of those things already considered rights – equal access to work, for example, is codified in the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights – are in the real world more and more dependent on internet access: so many job postings are only online now, with job applications only possible online too.
“The internet has changed to become to main way to communicate, but also a device for work, as a marketplace, as the best way to share ideas and so on, with Covid revealing 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. And Covid has only emphasised that argument I think. It has exposed the shocking disparities between those with and without access.”
This is why some thinkers on the topic have thought of the internet as being more of an auxiliary human right rather than a right in itself – necessary to prevent more fundamental rights from becoming useless.
What of, say, 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, UK, 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 last summer from the UN Human Rights Office stresses the negative ramifications of internet shut-downs – governments switching off the national internet infrastructure, banning access or limiting bandwidth. And it’s commonplace: Iran is proving the most topical example, with social media seen as vital to the documentation, organisation and, outside of urban areas, spread of dissent, such that some have claimed the shutdown is an extension of the physical violence taking place. But Iran is not alone: 74 countries enacted 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 – at massive economic cost nationally, and with knock-on effects internationally – particularly during heightened political tensions and often without 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. Ironically, shutdowns tend to occur in those less developed countries receiving development aid to increase connectivity. Small wonder too that authoritarian states – Iran, but also China – are keen to develop a national internet over which more pervasive control could be exerted: the so-called ‘splinternet’. Syria has just one, easily 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 set challenges – to find out which member of Congress submitted a particular bill, and 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, all subjects in the first group used the internet and 89% completed the tasks; only 12% of the internet-deprived group managed to do so.
Certainly 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, those that do have it, predictably, are those who are wealthier: globally, 58% of the richest households have internet at home, relative to 16% of the poorest households. Mobile telephony likewise remains too expensive for many in the developing world, notably in countries the likes of South Africa, where broadband roll-out has been slow and 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 infrastructure where they are, because the service is too expensive, or because they lack the skills. Five percent have no access at all. Potentially generations are coming up without the skills necessary to thrive in the 21st century: two-thirds of the world’s school-age children have no internet at home, with 63% of 15-24-year-olds also unconnected.
Small wonder that the last decade has seen some – albeit not many – countries declare internet access to be a right, Finland and Mexico among them, and take the first steps to make national coverage a reality. Among ideas explored have been repurposing community centres or libraries as free internet access hubs, through to subsidies to buy access at home.
Yet it’s far from clear that policies enacted by some nations over recent years – the likes of President Biden’s Internet for All initiative – are going about solving this problem the right way. For instance, to start with there’s the need for accurate maps of today’s broadband coverage – 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 – as providing the devices to access the internet on. Recycling of still functional – if no long cutting-edge or fashionable – devices 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.
Meeting the needs of sparsely populated locations unserved by internet provision would, according to a Tufts University study, 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 the reality is that the broadband gap – in terms of numbers of people affected – is three times greater in urban areas.
There is also the problem, it argues, that closing the digital divide requires local solutions, pertinent to the particular community, terrain, and so on. Barry likewise argues that closing the digital divide will only be hampered by taking a binary response – access or no access – rather than seeing the situation as more a question of “gradations of access divide” requiring a suitably multi-faceted response according to language, education, income, available technology and so on.
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). Companies that profit directly from the internet – service providers, notably – 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, seeing as their business relies on the internet,” suggests Reglitz. “The internet has been a kind of wild west today, 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, in the US, says that a 10 percentage point 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 – something to watch Netflix on, and yes, it’s that kind of [entertainment function] that most people do 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 for those who need it too.”