A scholar in ethics argues that internet access should be considered a basic human right, similarly to the global right to health and liberty. His study suggests that in places where humans lack the means of getting online, other basic rights can be undermined.
“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,” Dr. Merten Reglitz, a lecturer in global ethics at the University of Birmingham in the UK.
“Without such access, many people lack a meaningful way to influence and hold accountable supranational rule-makers and institutions. These individuals simply don’t have a say in the making of the rules they must obey and which shape their life chances.”
Reglitz’s research found that exercising free speech and obtaining information in these modern times is unavoidably linked to internet access. During elections, for instance, social media channels are flooded with political debates and politically-orientated content shared across a person’s network. By not having access to such information, and not being able to participate in the debate, an “offline” person will have relatively lower freedom of speech.
In order to highlight the importance of the internet in shaping the modern political and socio-cultural landscape, Reglitz cites several recent examples in which online campaigns and movements have led to wide-scale change. Among them, Reglitz mentions the ‘Arab Spring’ (people would use the internet to report on government atrocities), the documentation of unjustified police violence against blacks in the United States, or the viral #MeToo campaign, which tackled top-level sexual harassment of women by men in positions of authority.
Reglitz argues that other basic human rights such as life, liberty, and freedom from torture can be much more effectively protected as long as there is internet access. In his opinion, internet access is of such fundamental importance that if a nation is unwilling or unable to provide its citizens with this right, then this should be a call for the international community to step in.
Some nations and organizations have already taken the initiative in this respect. Kerala, a state in India that is home to 35 million people, has declared universal internet access a human right and is aiming to uphold this value by the end of 2019. Meanwhile, the EU plans to provide every European city and village with free WiFi around the main centers of public life by 2020. Global internet access is also part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
It’s believed that 51% of the world’s population of 7 billion people has access to the internet. There has been tremendous growth during the past decade thanks to the proliferation of cheap smartphones and advances in telecom infrastructure. However, there is still much to do in order to help the other half of the world’s population to catch up.
The challenge lies in financing such an undertaking — but this is definitely doable. After all, it’s not like everyone needs the fastest internet and latest devices. A steady, low-broadband connection on a low-cost smartphone is more than enough for basic internet access and communication.
“Universal internet access need not cost the earth – accessing politically important opportunities such as blogging, obtaining information, joining virtual groups, or sending and receiving emails does not require the latest information technology,” commented Dr. Reglitz.
“Web-capable phones allow people to access these services and public internet provision, such as public libraries, can help get people online where individual domestic access is initially too expensive.”
One huge leap in enabling universal internet access could be made if current initiatives to provide satellite internet are successful. SpaceX plans is to launch a constellation of 12,000 high-speed internet satellites around the Earth, which could provide data transfers up to 50% faster than existing fiber-optic cables. The goal is to have this blanket of satellites operational by 2027, which would provide internet to even some of the most remote locations in the world.
Whether its conventional telecom or satellite-based internet, the aim should be to drastically improve broadband affordability. According to the World Wide Web Foundation, internet access is considered affordable as long as one gigabyte of data doesn’t cost more than 2% of a person’s monthly income. Today, 2.3 billion people cannot afford internet access — and this is simply not acceptable in the digital age. In many respects, a lack of internet access today has a similar opportunity burden as not having electricity a century ago.
Imagine the kind of advances society could make if everyone had access to the internet. Broadband connectivity carries the unprecedented potential to bridge education divides, transform learning and improve skills for the globalized economy. A student in a developing country can access the library of a prestigious university anywhere in the world, an unemployed person can retrain and improve their job prospects in other fields, and individuals can found digital startups that enhance the local economy and provide jobs.
The study was published in the Journal of Applied Philosophy.