Access to the internet plays an important role in our daily lives. So much so, that more people are beginning to see access to reliable, sufficiently fast internet as a human right.
But why is internet access being promoted as a human right? And what happens when we don’t have the ability to connect? Here’s everything you need to know…
Internet Access as a Human Right: The UN View
Headlines in 2016 proclaimed that the United Nations declared that internet access is a human right. However, the real picture is not quite so straightforward.
Rather, the UN Human Rights Council adopted a resolution that acknowledged the important role internet access plays in exercising our human rights. Internet access itself wasn’t added to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
This 2016 non-binding resolution outlined a few ways that internet access enables fundamental human rights. It also stated that the intentional disruption of internet access by governments is a human rights violation. The resolution calls on states to adopt policies that provide universal access to the internet.
“[The UN] calls upon all States to consider formulating, through transparent and inclusive processes with all stakeholders, and adopting national internet-related public policies that have the objective of universal access and enjoyment of human rights at their core,” the resolution says.
Here are a few other points the resolution includes:
- The need for countries to address the digital divide
- Internet access, and the lack thereof, affects the enjoyment of the right to education
- The importance of applying a human rights-based approach when providing and expanding internet access
- The need for the internet to “open, accessible and nurtured by multi-stakeholder participation”
World leaders and governments have also weighed in on the concept of internet access as a right. Opinions differ regarding the specific conditions of internet access, such as whether it should be free or simply affordable. However, numerous countries view the ability to access the internet as essential.
Estonia, Finland, Greece, France, and Costa Rica, are a few of the countries whose highest courts view internet access as a basic necessity, fundamental right, or universal service.
Internet Access in Relation to Other Human Rights
Most of the arguments supporting broadband internet access as a human right point to its relation to other human rights.
For example, The Universal Declaration of Human Rights includes certain rights in which internet access plays an essential role. These rights include:
- The freedom of opinion and expression
- Freedom of information
- The right to education
- Right to personal development
- The right to adequate medical care
- Right of peaceful assembly
- The right to work
As the internet becomes more entwined in the basic functioning of society, it plays a larger role in these rights. This is similar to how the role of electricity has changed over the past century. Previously a perk enjoyed by the elite, it’s now considered an essential basic service needed to function in modern society.
In terms of the right to education and development, the internet provides learning opportunities through free online college courses. This offers people who cannot travel to or afford traditional university education the ability to upskill.
These people are not only able to find more job opportunities as a result of access to the internet, but the internet also hosts a variety of online job opportunities and career paths.
Furthermore, the right to freedom of expression and the freedom to organize peaceful assembly have become increasingly intertwined with technology, the internet, and social media. The same goes for the right to access information.
The internet is an especially important tool in facilitating and exercising these rights for vulnerable populations, such as poor people or people with disabilities.
Considering how important the internet is in exercising rights—and the fact that most people cannot set up their own internet—more people argue that governments should consider this access a right or essential utility.
What Happens When Internet Access Is Denied?
The problems with the lack of access to reliable internet become apparent in regions where governments deliberately cut off access. For example, the ability to organize peaceful protests relies significantly on communicating through messaging apps or online platforms.
This is why authoritarian governments often cut off access to these services during times of unrest. Denying internet access stifles dissent, hampers the ability to coordinate protests, and limits access to up-to-date information on current events. In 2019, Zimbabwe’s government shut down the internet after civilian protests.
But the lack of access to reliable and affordable internet affects the rights of people in democracies and developed countries too.
This is especially prevalent when it comes to the right to education. University and school students without internet access struggle to fulfill the requirements of qualifications. This trend is referred to as the “homework gap”.
According to Axios, high school students with home internet access are more likely to graduate than those without. Furthermore, unemployed job applicants with home internet, on average, find employment seven weeks faster than those who don’t have the internet at home.
Even when it comes to life-saving medical care, the internet is increasingly playing a significant role. In remote areas where specialists are not present, teleconferencing allows clinics to consult with specialists to help patients whose conditions are time-sensitive.
Arguments Against Internet Access as a Right
Despite the links between internet access and human rights, there are notable figures who argue against the concept of affordable access as a human right.
Most notably, American internet pioneer Vint Cerf penned a New York Times opinion piece that expressed his view that internet access is not a right. However, he supported the notion that it’s a major enabler of human rights.
“But that argument, however well meaning, misses a larger point: technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself,” Cerf said in the column.
He added that if technology becomes so highly exalted that it’s considered a right, society will focus on the wrong things.
“Improving the Internet is just one means, albeit an important one, by which to improve the human condition. It must be done with an appreciation for the civil and human rights that deserve protection—without pretending that access itself is such a right,” Cerf said.
Understanding More About the Digital Divide
The argument over whether internet access is a right continues. But there is little debate over just how much of a major role the internet plays in our daily lives. As such, more focus is being placed on the disparities in access to the internet and how this affects people.
This unequal access is known as the digital divide. You can find out more about the digital divide in America in our piece on understanding the digital divide and its effects.