Today, I participated in a stimulating panel discussion on “From Digital Third World to Digital Citizenship: the state of the internet and how Canada measures up“. The panel was organized by Dan Robichaud from the Halifax Regional CAP Association and it was part of Podcamp Halifax 2010. Below are some of my thoughts on this issue:
Is Internet Access a Fundamental Human Right?
There is really no debate that Internet access is an important part of modern life. We use the Internet to access government information, look for a job, learn, read news, write blogs, keep in touch with relatives, make purchases, and so on. But unfortunately, access to the Internet is not yet universal. Even in a country as developed as Canada, we are still debating on (1) how to connect as many people as possible to the Internet and (2) whether or not a government should guarantee a minimal Internet connection to its citizens. To address these issues, some European countries, such as Estonia, Finland and France have declared the Internet a human right. The question is should Canada follow these European countries and also legally declare that Internet access is a human right?
Personally I do not think that declaring Internet access to be a human right will lead to universal Internet access for all. And here is why:
- Even if Canada were to declare Internet access as a fundamental human right, it would still not necessarily guarantee that everybody in Canada will actually get Internet access. Without the accompanied political and financial commitment from the government and the private sectors, this new “human right” would be nothing but a “feel good” law that will only exist on paper.
- It is also unclear what the Internet as a “human right” would constitute. For example, in order to access the Internet, we need a computer or some other device. So does this mean that the government will now have to guarantee that everyone should have a right to a computer? And how much bandwidth should the government guarantee as part of this right? (Keep in mind that any minimal speed that the government would guarantee now is not likely to be adequate in just a year or two…)
- Also, once we declare that accessing the Internet is a human right, how do we legally keep online predators and other people who have committed severe cyber-crimes from accessing the Internet and not violate their human rights in the process?
- Finally, we tend to look at this issue as a technology only problem. But it would be naïve for us to assume that if Internet access is widely available, everybody would start using it right the way. This will not happen. According to Statistics Canada (2007), lack of access is only but one of many common reasons why some people still does not use the Internet.
In sum, I do see the Internet as an essential service and I agree that everyone should be able to have access to the Internet, but I do not think that it should be legally declared as a basic human right. I believe an effective solution should not be a simple top-down edict from the government, but instead we should pursue a more bottom-up approach to the problem of ensuring universal Internet access. By working closely with communities that still do not have access, we will have a better understanding of what their needs are and how they can best be met with Internet access.