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Is Internet Access a Basic Human Right?

Gordon Kelly



Air, water, free speech, Angry Birds… there are many things over the years we have come to see as basic human rights. According to the United Nations this week we should all start getting used to another, perhaps more surprising one, Internet access.

"Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states," said the report from Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations. La Rue wrote the report "on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression."


He explained that "the Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies." He added that "the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights."

Why write this report now? La Rue noted that the Internet has existed since the 1960s, but said its evolution was such that today there is "incorporation into virtually every aspect of modern human life".

Is La Rue right? On the growth of the Internet he certainly has a point. He explains that "According to the International Telecommunication Union, the total number of Internet users worldwide is now over 2 billion" and you only have to look at the rise of Facebook from 50,000 users in August 2008 to nearly 700m in June 2011 to see how our digital life is skyrocketing. Every aspect of what we do, from shopping and travel to communication and learning is fundamentally underpinned by the Internet.


There is also momentum for La Rue's core argument. Back in July 2010 forward thinking Finland declared broadband a legal right and said every Finn will be guaranteed a 1Mbit connection by law. Admittedly for a country with a population of just 5.5m, where the government has vowed 100Mbit broadband for all by 2015 and 96 per cent are already online this is a fairly incremental step. So what about the rest of us?

In March 2010 a BBC World Service poll of 27,000 people around the world found four in five people believed Internet Access to be a fundamental right. It concluded "the internet is the most powerful potential source of enlightenment ever created" and governments must "regard the Internet as basic infrastructure - just like roads, waste and water".


The problem is for all its support, this infrastructure is grossly unequal. In the UK just this week Virgin Media announced 4m homes (a fraction of the population) now have access to 100Mbit broadband yet the nation's average speed remains little more than 4Mbit. Rural customers fare even worse averaging closer to 3Mbit and residents of some villages would dream of achieving even that. In a time of ever more streaming media, HD video and Cloud computing this isn't good enough. Human right or not, if high quality Internet access isn't widely available there are risks internationally of falling behind as a nation.

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