Many of us take for granted our ability to tap in to Twitter or spend longer than we would care to admit tumbling down a YouTube rabbit hole. But this luxury is not afforded to an estimated 1.94 million UK households lacking internet access in 2019.
A University of Birmingham study published on Monday (11 November) argues that access to free internet must be recognised as a human right key to the exercise of free speech and freedom of information.
It is claimed that basic freedoms – such as free expression, freedom of information and freedom of assembly – are undermined when some citizens go online while others cannot. The internet is also deemed to be a key way of protecting the human right to life, liberty and freedom from torture.
Dr Merten Reglitz, a lecturer in Global Ethics who authored the research, said: “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.
“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.”
Professor Reglitz acknowledges that, while being online cannot guarantee the human rights to life, liberty and bodily integrity, he cites examples of where it has played a vital role in holding institutions to account.
This includes the #MeToo campaign, a movement of women calling out powerful men over sexual harassment. Another example is the ‘Arab Spring’, during which social media helped galvanise and organise protests which led to the toppling of several authoritarian heads of state.
In India, the state of Kerala has declared universal internet access a human right which it aims to provide for its 35 million people by 2019.
The European Union has also launched an initiative to provide every European village and city with free Wi-Fi access by 2020, and global internet access is part of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.
Image Credit: Pxhere.
While emancipatory in some contexts, internet access has also prompted concerns around the right to privacy, discrimination and the integrity of democracy.
Earlier this month a cross-party group of MPs published a report stating that the system by which people consent to sharing their information with tech companies online is “broken”.
While the UK general election has once again brought up the debate around targeted political advertising, which has allowed for the micro-targeted dissemination of misinformation on social media.
Addressing these concerns, Reglitz told EachOther: “To say you should not get access to the internet because you can be manipulated is too paternalistic. The problem is not with access – the problem is with use. I think governments need to safeguard our freedoms and make sure our rights are enforced online as well.”
He added that the roll-out of universal internet access must be accompanied by online literacy training.