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Should Internet Access be Declared a Basic Human Right?

Credit: Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. June 2022

UNITED NATIONS, Apr 13 2023 (IPS) - The United Nations defines human rights as “rights inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status”.

Back in 1948, the UN General Assembly proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), whose 75th anniversary is being commemorated this year.

The rights spelled out include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, and many more. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination.

Enter the University of Birmingham (UoB), UK.

A new UoB study, released last week, has proposed that internet and online access be declared a human right.

“People around the globe are so dependent on the internet to exercise socio-economic human rights such as education, healthcare, work, and housing that online access must now be considered a basic human right”, says the study.

“Particularly in developing countries, internet access can make the difference between people receiving an education, staying healthy, finding a home, and securing employment – or not.”

“Even if people have offline opportunities, such as accessing social security schemes or finding housing, they are at a comparative disadvantage to those with Internet access.”

Publishing his findings in Politics, Philosophy & Economics, Dr Merten Reglitz, Lecturer in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, calls for a stand-alone human right to internet access – based on it being a practical necessity for a range of socio-economic human rights.

He calls for public authorities to provide internet access free of charge for those unable to afford it, as well as providing training in basic digital skills training for all citizens and protecting online access from arbitrary interference by states and private companies.

Dr Reglitz said: “The internet has unique and fundamental value for the realisation of many of our socio-economic human rights – allowing users to submit job applications, send medical information to healthcare professionals, manage their finances and business, make social security claims, and submit educational assessments.

“The internet’s structure enables a mutual exchange of information that has the potential to contribute to the progress of humankind as a whole – potential that should be protected and deployed by declaring access to the Internet a human right.”

Emma Gibson, Campaign Lead for Alliance for Universal Digital Rights (AUDRi), told IPS “with so much of our lives conducted online, access to the internet has now become a de facto human right”.

There is a gender dimension at play because women are less likely to be able to get online than men, and this is reversing some of the progress we’ve made on women’s equality.

“Access to the internet is becoming the new gender divide. When women can’t access education online, search for a higher paying job, independently manage their finances or set up a business with its own website, then it’s inevitable that the equality gap between men and women will widen,” declared Gibson.

Amanda Manyame, Digital Law and Rights Consultant at Equality Now, told IPS accessing the internet is important because it is intrinsically linked to various rights, including the right to freedom of expression and association, and the right to information.

The internet, she pointed out, plays a central role in ensuring full participation in social, cultural and political life, but not being safe online deters many women and girls from accessing the internet where it is available.

“As part of ensuring digital participation, consideration should be given to online safety concerns such as online sexual exploitation and abuse, especially in relation to women and girls who are disproportionately affected.”

“The United Nations, she said, has been playing a role in ensuring internet access through its agencies and other mechanisms involved in internet-related activities, such as international public policy, standardization, and capacity-building efforts.

These include the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), the World Summit on the Information Society, the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), and more recently, the Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Technology, which has been making advances toward the Global Digital Compact, in close consultation with Member States, the technology industry, private companies, civil society, and other stakeholders.

One of the thematic areas for the Global Digital Compact is “Connect all people to the Internet, including all schools” focusing on ensuring safe and secure access to the Internet for all.

“National and international law and mechanisms need to address human rights and accountability in the digital realm, including incorporating access to the internet and digital technologies, which is key to ensuring equality for all women and girls, and other vulnerable groups, in both digital and physical spaces,” Manyame declared.

Dr Ruediger Kuehr Head of the Bonn Office of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Manager, Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme, told IPS SCYCLE has not substantially researched on internet access yet.

“But we know from our daily activities that illiteracy, availability of end devices and access points and stable energy systems are also limiting factors for internet access”

And many argue that shipments of used end devices shall help to close the gap, also by making machines available for an affordable price for the majority of the population, he noted.

“But it turns out that many of these machines are no longer useable. And that too many of the receiving countries are without the necessary infrastructure, policies/legislation and systems to address the issue of waste electrical and electronic equipment”.

But without that, he argued, the environmental, economic and social consequences will be enormous as well – leading to pollution, loss of scarce and valuable resources, creation of primitive jobs not even meeting the least security standards and systems, which pick the “cherries” but leaving the rest unattended adding to, for example, the plastics avalanche many are yet confronted with.

The UoB study outlines several areas in developed countries where internet access is essential to exercise socio-economic human rights:

    • Education – students in internet-free households are disadvantaged in obtaining a good school education with essential learning aids and study materials online.
    • Health – providing in-person healthcare to remote communities can be challenging, particularly in the US and Canada. Online healthcare can help to plug this gap.
    • Housing – in many developed countries, significant parts of the rental housing market have moved online.
    • Social Security – accessing these public services today is often unreasonably difficult without internet access.
    • Work – jobs are increasingly advertised in real time online and people must be able to access relevant websites to make effective use of their right to work.

Dr Reglitz’s research also highlights similar problems for people without internet access in developing countries – for example, 20 per cent of children aged 6 to 11 are out of school in sub-Saharan Africa.

Many children face long walks to their schools, where class sizes are routinely very large in crumbling, unsanitary schools with insufficient numbers of teachers.

“However, online education tools can make a significant difference – allowing children living remotely from schools to complete their education. More students can be taught more effectively if teaching materials are available digitally and pupils do not have to share books”.

For people in developing countries, he said, internet access can also make the difference between receiving an adequate level of healthcare or receiving none.

Digital health tools can help diagnose illnesses – for example, in Kenya, a smartphone-based Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek) has been used to test people’s eyesight and identify people who need treatment, especially in remote areas underserved by medical practitioners.

People are often confronted with a lack of brick-and-mortar banks in developing countries and internet access makes possible financial inclusion.

Small businesses can also raise money through online crowdfunding platforms – the World Bank expects such sums raised in Africa to rise from $32 million in 2015 to $2.5 billion in 2025.

Meanwhile, in a new report released last June, the UN Human Rights Office says the dramatic real-life effects of Internet shutdowns on people’s lives and human rights have been vastly underestimated and urges member states NOT to impose Internet shutdowns.

The link to the report: A/HRC/50/55 (un.org)

“Too often, major communication channels or entire communication networks are slowed down or blocked,” the report says, adding that this has deprived “thousands or even millions of people of their only means of reaching loved ones, continuing their work or participating in political debates or decisions.”

The report sheds light on the phenomenon of Internet shutdowns, looking at when and why they are imposed and examining how they undermine a range of human rights, first and foremost the right to freedom of expression.

“Shutdowns can mean a complete block on Internet connectivity but governments also increasingly resort to banning access to major communication platforms and throttling bandwidth and limiting mobile services to 2G transfer speeds, making it hard, for example, to share and watch videos or live picture broadcasts.”

The report notes that the #KeepItOn coalition, which monitors shutdowns episodes across the world, documented 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 in 74 countries, with some countries blocking communications repeatedly and over long periods of time.

“Shutdowns are powerful markers of sharply deteriorating human rights situations,” the report highlights. Over the past decade, they have tended to be imposed during heightened political tensions, with at least 225 shutdowns recorded during public demonstrations relating to social, political or economic grievances.

Shutdowns were also reported when governments carried out security operations, severely restricting human rights monitoring and reporting. In the context of armed conflicts and during mass demonstrations, the fact that people could not communicate and promptly report abuses seems to have contributed to further insecurity and violence, including serious human rights violations, according to the report.

IPS UN Bureau Report

 


  
 
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