Is Internet access a human right?

By Edith Mabanda Binzunga

"How did you live without the internet?". I had to ask my father this question as I have always found this intriguing. Writing everything on paper, buying a plane ticket at a counter, using a paper road map or ordering items via mail on a catalogue does not sound exciting to me. I do not really remember my life without a computer and the Internet. I used a computer for the first time at school when I was 5. The computer was installed in my classroom so students could play "Adibou", an educational video game developed in the 90s. I would never have imagined that a computer would have such a significant impact on my life.

If you are not very tech-savvy, you might say that humans do not need the Internet and only need food, water, oxygen, shelter and social links in order to survive. Yes, it is possible but with many drawbacks. How do people manage without the Internet in 2023? Should Internet access be a human right? These are the questions we should ask ourselves now.

As of January 2023, there were 5.16 billion Internet users worldwide, which makes the Internet a core pillar of the modern information society. The Internet has changed the way we live. It has removed communications barriers when the postal route and the telephone were the only way to hear from loved ones. Many people enjoy easy access to music, films and sports through the Internet. However, Internet services are no longer just for entertainment. They are now vital for access to education, jobs and information. If we take this into account, it is clear that access to the Internet should be considered a human right as so many other human rights simply could not be adequately realised without Internet access, such as the right to education or freedom of expression.

In July 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council released a resolution supporting human rights online. This resolution condemns any country that intentionally disrupts the internet access of its citizens. The resolution did not receive universal backing as it has been revealed that an increasing number of countries are using internet shutdowns as a way of controlling citizens. Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa and India suggested amendments to this resolution. It is clear that internet shutdowns have a severe impact on human rights as well as on the economy. Internet shutdowns usually happen during times of protests and elections, which can cause a threat to democracy. They also impact businesses which can not engage in e-commerce or provide digital products and services.

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted that internet access should be a human right as life moved online and the internet became the only way in which work and education could continue for millions of people. The implications of this digital divide on children during the Covid-19 crisis were stark. Children living in poverty were at a big disadvantage during the lockdown as they did not have access to the same online learning resources as children whose parents have access to the internet. The internet was also the only way for people to obtain information regarding the pandemic as well as having access to healthcare. We know that some factors made some people more likely to die from Covid-19, like age or underlying disease. However, it has been recently discovered that the lack of internet access was linked to a high risk of death as well. Moreover, older and financially vulnerable people, as well as minorities, are less likely to be online. More health services are moving online, which means that these people can not use telemedicine or find information about health conditions.

Unfortunately, even if we are living in a digital era, the digital divide still persists: as of April 2021, 3.7 billion people, most in developing countries, were still offline. The causes of this digital divide are multiple: geographical restrictions, digital illiteracy, high prices of data and insufficient infrastructure. In some areas, the terrain does not make it easy to build infrastructure. Moreover, some people are unable to use digital tools on a daily basis which can affect for instance, employability. As the world is moving online, finding ways to tackle this digital divide is necessary.

If Internet access is recognised as a human right, some argue that governments could face the dilemma of having to guarantee this right before they have been able to guarantee basic aspects of life such as food, electricity or education.

The Internet brings people together and has become a global means of communication in our daily lives. Millions of people still do not have access to this tool which puts them at a disadvantage. First, countries should have domestic legislation regarding Internet access; then, the international community will be able to recognise this right in a binding instrument. It is essential to recognise Internet access as a human right in order to guarantee equal opportunities, freedom of speech or political participation.

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