Should Internet access be considered as a human right, and shall we start treating it as such? If so, how? This short question leaves room for a broad discussion and a variety of opinions.
Society evolves, so do human rights
The right to life, the right to work, the freedom of opinion, and many other rights we have agreed upon for centuries now, in one form or another, are counted among basic human rights. Nevertheless, while society evolves and our living conditions improve, parallel with this, the concept of what is understood as a human right may expand.
While broad topics will be discussed later in this article, it is noteworthy that together with experts we will tackle issues such as; why and how should Internet access become another human right, should public authorities pay for public Internet access, as well as what are its implications in a democratic society?
While for you and me, picturing a world without unlimited Internet access is almost hopeless, some 42% of the world’s population is still without the Internet or does not use it for different reason.
On that note, we begin our discussion as to whether or not we should add the right to free Internet access to the list of human rights.
Public authorities should acknowledge a universal entitlement to access the Internet freely
Dr. Merten Reglitz, Lecturer in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, in a first-of-its-kind-study and article in the Journal of Applied Philosophy argues that “Internet access is no luxury, but instead a moral human right, and everyone should have unmonitored and uncensored access to this global medium – provided free of charge for those unable to afford it.”
In the above-mentioned study, he asserts that public authorities should recognize free Internet access as a human right, even though currently, he notes, few public authorities legally recognize such a right.
Reglitz, in a short yet informative interview with Youth Time, expands on why Internet access is considered to have such significance nowadays.
“However, that does not mean that we cannot justify that we have such a moral human right that should become a legally accepted human right. According to many philosophical human rights theories, all human rights are moral rights that we have by virtue of being human beings alone. Many of them have been enshrined into international law.”
We can identify an argument for it, we can justify it, but it has not yet been legally recognized
According to him, that leaves open the possibility that we have other moral rights that have not yet been enshrined in international and national human rights law.
“I argue that the human right to free Internet access is such a moral human right – we can identify an argument for it, we can justify it, but it has not yet been legally recognized. Human rights are nothing special in this respect.”
In response to Youth Time’s question, “How a ‘moral human right’ is defined?” he notes the following:
“By the human right to free Internet access I mean that public authorities should acknowledge and facilitate a universal entitlement to access the Internet freely. This rules out many things that unfortunately are rather normal at the moment: Internet shutdowns, censorship of online content, surveillance of online activities of individual users, or a lack of commitment to net neutrality. Often these things are done by governments.”
He continues that respecting the possibility of a human right to free Internet access, these would all be violations of this right and should not occur (at least not without a good justification, which there often isn’t).
“Importantly, though, the human right to free Internet access also requires that governments provide access to the Internet for those who are unable to afford it. […] This means that, if a state is unable to guarantee universal access for its citizens, the international community of states should help by providing development aid for this purpose.”
On the other hand, does better Internet access increase the chance of having a more democratic society? He says that the justification for the human right to free Internet access derives from its usefulness for realizing other crucial human rights, such as: the rights to free speech, free association, and free information.
“Having unimpeded access to the Internet is, for instance, a much more effective way of accessing information that watching the evening news or reading a print newspaper. Having the options of blogging, posting videos, etc. is a much more effective way of exercising free speech than e.g. speaking at town hall meetings or writing readers’ comments to a newspaper.”
Reglitz brings to our attention the fact that many people do not have Internet access, and for them the disadvantage is very real.
Even though he admits that having free Internet access alone does not automatically promote democracy, still, he counts all the benefits it could bring. Reglitz is of the opinion that states need to protect individual users from, for example, online abuse, defamation, hate speech that incites violence, and false information.
These are problems of Internet use, not of access
“They are reasons to help individual users to be able to make better use of this medium. Finally, like any other medium (but probably even more so than other mass media), the Internet can be used by governments to undermine democracies. As pointed out above, online censorship, surveillance, or propaganda are violations of the human right to free Internet access. These all are instances of using the Internet to undermine, rather than to promote, democracy that the right rules out.”
Whilst having in mind all the benefits stemming from free Internet access, usually there is a rising concern regarding the right to privacy. He responds to these critics by adding that respecting the human right to free Internet access indeed helps to protect privacy.
“First, states should pass regulations that force private companies to respect the privacy of their users. […] But many users might not be aware of the privacy-respecting alternatives, or even be aware of the problem of personal data harvesting and how it affects them personally in the first place.”
Reglitz reckons that, if the users are aware of and demand alternatives to personal data harvesting services, the market might well provide more.
The Internet can be very helpful, the poor can come up with useful information and get themselves out of the poverty
A distinguished freelance copywriter from Kosovo, Orgesa Arifi, genuinely appreciates the importance of the Internet in her employment prospects.
“If the Internet shut down, I might be literally jobless.” are Arifi’s remarks with Youth Time.
“The Internet is a highly valuable resource for my job, and for the tasks that I receive from my clients. Since freelancing is becoming a thing, especially now with the current pandemic, I think the Internet is a very strong tool for the human race to move forward, and why not find new ways to be more productive and creative while using it.”
She strongly believes that Internet access is a human right.
“We all know that the lower classes cannot afford Internet access, and this has to change in order to include them in the educational system so they can become potential employees.”
Arifi is known for speaking her mind in social media regarding the social circumstances in Kosovo. She says that the fact that she faces people who disagree with her online, has made her stronger about what she stands for.
At this point, we have concluded our discussion on the relationship between Internet access and the exercise of the right of free speech.
“Well, the Internet is all about the freedom of speech, since you have a network of friends and you can easily express your thoughts in a second without the need to meet in person. In my experience, in most cases freedom of speech can be a problem respecting certain topics such as politics, religion, women’s rights, etc. But as hard as it gets, maybe someone using its freedom might change somebody’s mind for better.”
She is of the opinion that better Internet access does not necessarily increase the chances of a more democratic society.
“Because it [the Internet] can be easily misused, and people are very good at manipulating while the majority can be oblivious and believe the click-bait websites without even thinking twice.”
Conclusively, Arifi recalls the impact that the documentary film The Great Hack (2019) has had in raising concerns regarding the right to privacy.
“After watching this documentary, many people found themselves looking for answers about their data rights. The main problem about The Great Hack is that our data on the Internet which we add without thinking can be used by third parties who will create applications and patterns in order to control us.”
Title photo: Shutterstock / Collage: Martina Advaney
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