Why Public Authorities should recognise a Human Right to free Internet Access

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Why the Internet has become a basic utility.

Merten Reglitz, University of Birmingham.                
ORCID ID icon 0000-0001-8921-1258

Internet access is widely regarded as a luxury that enables a more convenient lifestyle for those who can afford it. But this view ignores how crucial the Internet has become for the enjoyment of some of our most basic human rights.

 In fact, online access has become so important that we do not have adequate opportunities to make use of crucial human rights (such as free speech, free information, free assembly, education, work, and in some cases even health care) without it. The point is not that we have no opportunities e.g. to speak freely in public or to associate with others without Internet access. Normally we can exercise these human rights offline.

The lockdowns imposed to limit the spread of Covid-19 created an exceptional situation in which the Internet was in fact the only way to make use of these crucial political freedoms. But even in more regular times, those who are digitally excluded have much less opportunity to speak publicly, associate with others, obtain information, or access education than those who have online access. And today, many public services (e.g. Universal Credit) are difficult to access offline because they have been designed primarily to be accessed via the Internet.

These relative disadvantages of people who do not have reliable access to the Internet are increasingly unjustifiable the more public and political life and public services move online. Moreover, in developing societies, Internet access is often even required for a basic level of enjoyment of human rights. Where in-person medical care, education, or financial services are unaffordable or unprofitable, Internet access can make the difference between receiving some education, some health care, and access to digital financial services like mobile money, and receiving none at all.

Internet access should thus be recognised as a human right - not because it is good in itself or because it allows us to shop or entertain ourselves more conveniently. Rather, online access has become indispensable everywhere for the realisation of many of our crucial human rights – either to ensure everyone has adequate opportunities to enjoy these rights or to allow for the enjoyment of these rights at all. It is therefore a basic utility whose availability cannot be left up to luck, political good will, or market forces. Rather, it should be a universal entitlement and free in two senses: it should be provided for those who are unable to afford it themselves. And it should be free from arbitrary interference by states and private companies. Online censorship, digital surveillance or manipulation, cyber-bullying, and unaffordable service provision are all incompatible with a right to free Internet access.

Recognition of such a right would be an acknowledgment of the importance the Internet has assumed for the lives of many people. And it would ensure that no one is unjustly excluded from (or has unfairly limited opportunities to) making use of many of their most essential human rights online.

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