Internet access and implementation of human rights

Published : 09 May 2023 08:37 PM

Digital ex­perts in the recent past have not only grown aware of the greater need for expansion of the internet paradigm but also that such a process is another step towards expansion in the observance of human rights. This awareness appears to have emerged because of reported difficulties being faced by citizens in some countries in gathering and sharing information because of either gender or politics.

This has attracted greater attention because the world is commemorating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)’s 75th anniversary this year and everyone under this equation has the right to use the internet as a platform pertaining to their right to information and moving forward towards a smarter future. They are also reminding the world that 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”.

Analyst Thalif Deen has pointed out that the rights spelled out “include the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression and the right to work and education. Everyone is entitled to these rights, without discrimination”.

Reference has also been made in this context by several other analysts and attention has been drawn to a new University of Birmingham (UoB), UK study, released in April, which has proposed that internet and online access be declared a human right because - “people around the globe are dependent on the internet to exercise socio-economic human rights such as education, healthcare, work, and housing” so much so “that online access must now be considered a basic human right”.

In this regard, mention has also been made that – “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 who have Internet access.”

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

He has called upon 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 has added that “the internet has unique and fundamental value for the realization 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 also 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 Leader for Alliance for Universal Digital Rights (AUDRi), has also observed that “with so much of our lives conducted online, access to the internet has now become a de facto human right”. According to her, there is apparently also 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. In this context she has suggested that “access to the internet is becoming the new gender divide. When women cannot access education online, search for a higher paying job, independently manage their finances or set up a business with its own website, then it is inevitable that the equality gap between men and women will widen.”

Amanda Manyame, Digital Law and Rights Consultant at ‘Equality Now’, has also indicated that  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 has 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.”

Consequently, she has highlighted the fact that the United Nations while playing an important role in this regard should exert itself more through coordinated effort among its agencies.. This view has been underlined through her comment that “the United Nations 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.”

 It may be mentioned here that the following UN Agencies play a pivotal role in this regard. 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.

It would be worthwhile to highlight the serious efforts being undertaken particularly by the Global Digital Compact. They are particularly emphasizing on “Connect all people to the Internet, including all schools” focusing on ensuring safe and secure access to the Internet for all”. Manyame has also observed that “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.”

It appears however that some institutions associated with the United Nations have not as yet been able to carry this forward at a faster pace. Dr Ruediger Kuehr Head of the Bonn Office of the UN Institute for Training and Research (UNITAR) and Manager, Sustainable Cycles (SCYCLE) Programme, has accepted the fact that SCYCLE has not substantially been able to carry out research on internet access yet. Kuehr has nevertheless mentioned that- “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.” It appears that in some cases used end devices help to close the gap, by making machines available for an affordable price for the majority of the population- but obviously it always does not give the required result. 

Kuehr has noted that “it turns out that many of these machines are no longer usable. 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”. This factor in its own way according to Kuehr appears to be having “environmental, economic and social consequences- leading to pollution, loss of scarce and valuable resources or creation of jobs that meet the least security standards”.

Research has also highlighted 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 school conditions with insufficient numbers of teachers.

In such a scenario digital conditional improvement can make things much better. Online education tools can make a significant difference – allowing children living remotely from schools to complete their education. More students can also be taught more effectively if teaching materials are available digitally and pupils do not have to share books. In developing countries, internet access can also make the difference between receiving an adequate level of healthcare or receiving none. 

We have seen how in rural areas in Kenya as well as in South Asia , including Bangladesh, digital health tools helped diagnose attacks and provide treatment not only during the Covid pandemic but also assisted with regard to optical illnesses -especially in remote areas underserved by medical practitioners.

No analysis of the internet's importance as a human rights facilitator will be completed without also referring to the phenomenon of Internet shutdowns. We have seen what has been happening in some areas of Central Asia, Eastern Europe, and South America and also in parts of South Asia and Africa. It is evident that such a course of action, when imposed, undermines a range of human rights, first and foremost the right to freedom of expression. In this regard the UOB report has pointed out that “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.”

This has happened during periods driven by political and sometimes due to religious interests. It has emerged that organizations which monitor shutdowns episodes across the world, documented 931 shutdowns between 2016 and 2021 in 74 countries, with some countries blocking communications 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 supposed security operations.

In any case, as we move forward on the path of digital democracy, we need to facilitate use of digital technology as an important dimension of human rights. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance