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Is Internet Access a Human Right? The Importance of Internet Access for Development and Political Stability

November 23rd, 2021

Is Internet Access a Human Right? The Importance of Internet Access for Development and Political Stability

Since the development of the worldwide web 32 years ago, the internet has transformed the modern world and global communications. And during the worldwide pandemic lockdown in 2020, the necessity and multiple benefits of internet communication became clear, not just for individuals, but for companies, corporations and charities.

At HART, direct communication with our partners, hearing their voices, and identifying their priorities, are key to our vision and work. Nothing can replace the effectiveness of face to face encounter for building relationships or understanding context and needs, but when partners are scattered in some of the remotest and most conflicted corners of the planet – and particularly when travel has been curtailed in this new Covid-world reality – the internet has become an essential tool for communication and maintaining contact. However, it is precisely in places such as those with which we are engaged that we face difficulty. For not only can quality or availability of a signal deeply impact conversational capacity, but in some situations such as the coups in Sudan and Burma, the internet is actively cut, so depriving people of communicating to others outside the country what is happening on the ground and what are their immediate needs and priorities.

The internet is now embedded in the life of modern society and billions of people are connected. The importance of the internet for people’s lives has grown exponentially, so that web access is now a prerequisite for many of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, including supporting education and reducing inequalities, driving economic growth and boosting health outcomes. Despite this, according to Digital Trends, 60 percent of the world’s population does not have access to the internet, and most of these are in the developing world. In the Least Developed Nations, only one in every 10 individuals has regular access to the internet. And there are several countries such as China or Burma/Myanmar that attempt to restrict or control the content to which users have access.

In a 2020 article, the inventor of the internet, Sir Tom Berners-Lee wrote that he always believed that “the web should not be owned by any single individual, corporation, or government. It had to belong to everyone.”  In fact, he wrote, it was created “for humanity,” on the basis of values that are enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights – the rights to free expression and association, human dignity, the protection of personal data, non-discrimination and gender equality, the right to education, and the freedom to work and conduct a business. These universal human rights are woven into the worldwide web and its purpose and function.

In July 2016, the UN issued a declaration (Resolution A/HRC/32/L.20), declaring – on the basis that the internet is essential to communication and economic development in the modern world –  that “online freedom” is a “human right” that must be protected. It called for “a comprehensive human rights-based approach when providing and expanding access to the internet and for the internet to be open, accessible and nurtured.”  Sadly, the resolution did not receive universal backing, with several countries rejecting the resolution. Notably, Russia, China and South Africa.

When people are faced with frequent environmental catastrophes or at high risk of political violence and instability, as is the case with most of our partner countries, the need for efficient and effective communication becomes even more important for all sectors. The UN has a goal to deliver universal internet access. This may seem a lofty ambition. However, the Alliance for Affordable Internet, an initiative of the Web Foundation, has calculated that around 430 billion US Dollars of additional investment would be needed over 10 years to hit this target. When one considers that the world spends this amount on carbonated soft drinks every year, the it becomes clear that such a target is achievable. And the positive economic and social returns on such an investment for millions of people globally, would be truly remarkable. The transformation of India’s economy by its digital ‘revolution’ is a good example.

Every time we are able to communicate online with our partners in remote corners of Africa and Asia, especially when they are facing situations of conflict or environmental catastrophe, it allows us to assess and respond to immediate needs, but it also enables us to provide immediate and transformational moral support and encouragement in situations of great hardship and suffering. HART supports any initiatives, whether by governments, companies, civil society, or citizens, to work together towards an inclusive digital future, where internet access is understood — and realised — as a basic human right.

 

Articles referenced:

https://webfoundation.org/2020/10/its-time-to-recognise-internet-access-as-a-human-right/ -Sir Tom Berners-Lee. 28 October 2020

https://www.businessinsider.com/un-says-internet-access-is-a-human-right-2016-7?r=US&IR=T -Jim Sandle, 23 July 2016.

 


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