At the end of 1948, when the memory of the Second World War was still fresh in people’s minds, the General Assembly of the recently created United Nations (UN) adopted a text that would become a benchmark, a point of reference and an ideal: the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The text enshrined 30 universal and inalienable rights and freedoms, including the right to life, equality, private property and freedom of expression. They are rights, as the UN itself defines them, that “we have simply because we exist as human beings – they are not granted by any state”.
Although the Declaration has not been amended since then, other rights have gained ‘human right’ status in recent years, such as the right to water, recognised by the UN in 2010, and the right to a healthy environment, in 2021.
Now, pressure is rising for the recognition of a new right, unimagined a few decades ago: the right to internet access. “Internet access should be recognised as a human right because, in our digital age, there are many other human rights that can no longer be adequately realised without access to the internet,” Merten Reglitz, lecturer in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham and author of a paper on the subject, tells Equal Times.
The academic gives the example of access to health cover in developing countries as one of the rights that can now be accessed thanks to technology. “For some people, especially in developing countries, access to the internet has facilitated access to health services, where otherwise there would be none at all,” says Reglitz. The pandemic, he continues, has shown that this right is also fundamental in wealthier countries. “Even in the most developed countries, during the lockdowns, without access to the internet, we were not really able to exercise many of our freedoms, such as freedom of expression, freedom of association or the right to information.”
Reglitz is not alone in thinking that access to the internet should be guaranteed. Among them is the father of the World Wide Web himself, Tim Berners-Lee, who argued his case at a debate in the European Parliament in October 2020.
“As bad as it [the pandemic] has been, imagine a crisis like this but without the web. With access to the web, employees can work from home and keep economies afloat; governments and others are able to disseminate vital health information; families can keep in touch; students, if they are lucky, are able to keep their education intact and their dreams alive by learning online. In this crisis, for those who have it, the web is not a luxury, it’s a lifeline,” he insisted.
The idea also has its detractors. For them, internet access does not meet the minimum standards to be deemed a human right, as it cannot be considered inherent to being human. “We have to put it into context. Internet or digital connectivity cannot be considered inherent to the human race. The basic rights and services that people should be afforded are more important than the internet,” says Neth Daño, Asia director of the ETC action group on erosion, technology and concentration.
The danger, says Daño, is that focusing on technology – from which it is hard to dissociate large and powerful lobbies – could hinder the achievement of other, more basic rights.
“Can Indigenous peoples in remote areas, who don’t even have access to electricity, prioritise internet access over health, education, food and even energy?” asks Daño.
If it is recognised as a human right, governments may be faced with the dilemma of having to ensure access to it before they have been able to cover life’s most basic needs,” argues Daño. “Governments cannot put the internet before electricity, food or education,” she continues.
Others see access to the internet as an ancillary right that can facilitate the realisation of basic rights but should not be given the status of a ‘human right’ in itself. “It should not be considered a human right as such. From a potential point of view, it is true that basic rights and the internet are connected. Those who don’t have the internet will enjoy less protection of certain rights,” says Mark Coeckelbergh, professor of philosophy at the University of Vienna and researcher on the philosophy of media and technology.
“That is why I think it is important for it to be recognised as a right within our legal framework, so that access is ensured. But I don’t think it will ever carry the force that human rights have,” he continues. The United Nations itself endorsed this view in a non-binding resolution, passed in 2016, that recognised the importance of the internet for rights such as freedom of expression, education and freedom of conscience, and called for a “human rights-based approach when providing and expanding access to the internet”.
A story of rapid growth and imbalances
Shortly after the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, another revolutionary idea began to take shape. By the 1950s, computers had become increasingly common tools in universities and defence centres, but they were still heavy, static machines, and academics had to go to research centres to use them.
Various thinkers then began to envisage the possibility of linking these devices together in a network to increase their capabilities. It was the United States Department of Defense that first saw the potential of creating a large computer network and approved the ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) project, which created a first prototype in the late 1960s.
The impact this prototype was to have is well known. Today, the internet reaches a large part of the globe and by 1995 it had become the fastest growing communication medium in history. Technology firms now rank among the world’s largest companies, with Amazon and Apple now up there with big investment banks and oil companies.
And yet, many are still not familiar with the web. Although the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation around the world, 2.9 billion people, or 37 per cent of the global population, have never used the internet, according to a recent UN report. And many, even if they had access, would not be able to use it, as Daño explains. “Even if there is an internet connection, even if satellites make it possible to reach remote areas, it is of no use if you don’t have the devices, such as mobile phones or computers. And it’s useless if you don’t have the knowledge to use it. A lot of people don’t know how to use them,” she points out.
Daño also warns of the risk of further widening existing inequalities. “These technologies are only going to increase the gap between those who have access and those who don’t. And, above all, between those who control them and those who use them,” she explains.
This is particularly manifest in the data processing industry, which is already creating inequalities in sensitive sectors such as agriculture and imposing digital colonialism on the Global South, according to a report by the Transnational Institute. “Keeping control of the data is a way to allow local European companies to grow at the cost of an increasingly subjugated Global South, which will sell commodities in exchange for consuming everyday technologies, with ever weaker terms of trade,” warns the report.
This gap in the ownership of technology, which is largely in the hands of multinationals and governments, also means that the internet can be used as a powerful tool for social and political control, as seen with the increasingly common use of internet blackouts as a form of repression, not only by authoritarian governments but also within democracies, as witnessed in Indian-administered Kashmir.
For Reglitz, however, such phenomena are comparable to other ‘negative externalities’ that industries generate in the exercise of their activities, such as environmental externalities, and which can be regulated to minimise their impact. “Social media companies are an incredibly complex phenomenon, because they are private businesses operating in the digital sphere,” he says. “Governments have an obligation to create a legal framework whereby companies have to integrate human rights into their business operations,” he continues.
History provides us with similar examples. “When radio was developed, the German communists wanted to use it to educate workers. But the Nazis came along and made use of it,” he recalls. So, any form of technology, argues Reglitz, is a “double-edged sword” that can be used for good or for bad ends. “But that is not an argument against the right to access[…]. Recognising this right is not going to further such problems. It would, in fact, become a critical tool for establishing what is and isn’t wrong,” he concludes.
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