Connected world, fragmented world

Is internet access a human right? What are the limits of free speech online and what should they be? By Judith Bruhn.

As this map shows, some 2.7 billion people used the internet in early 2013. That is 39 percent of the world’s population. We are an interconnected world, bringing us closer together and easing the transmission of information across borders. Yet, we are also a fragmented world. While Europe has the highest use, followed by the Americas, in Africa only 16% of the population has access to the internet. That is half of the rates in Asia and the Pacific. Internet access in Niger, Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of Congo only reaches between 1.4 and 1.7 percent of the population. This presents a stark contrast with the 95 percent or higher we find in countries like Norway and the UK, and 81 percent in the USA.  The fact that our connected world remains so fragmented only demonstrates a much wider problem of a still dis-connected world in which inequality prevails across continents.

That is why Mark Zuckerberg explained in August 2013 that he believes “connectivity” to be a human right because it is “the foundation of our global knowledge economy”. On he argues that connectivity is a human right because it connects us to each other, but also makes business transactions cheaper, easier, furthers science and knowledge based progress. Zuckerberg therefore came up with a some ideas on how to make internet access affordable. Aleph Molinari, founder of a Mexican non-profit organisation Fundación Proacceso ECO, agrees that the internet empowers its users. Like Zuckerberg, he argues internet access should be a basic right as it is such a powerful tool for development.

Tim Berner-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web, is just as passionate about internet access for all. But he told us on Free Speech Debate that the internet is a tool for empowerment but not a fundamental human right in itself. Above all, the internet is a tool to promote understanding between people from different backgrounds, which can help tear down cultural barriers.  While this is not easy or an inevitable result of the internet, Berners-Lee explains how he believes it can be done: “We need to get people thinking more global, bridging the national and the language barriers and I think we should design websites to do that, we need to design systems to do that. Then we need to put it on your individual agenda as a human being and point out that because the web allows you now to cross these boundaries and to talk to somebody … who’s in a very different culture to you, stop jumping up and down and celebrating the fact that it allows you do it but actually spend some time actually doing it.”

But if we are only connected to those wealthy enough to afford internet connection, how connected are we really? Do we get to hear the stories of those not already represented? Citizen journalism initiatives like Global Voices and Ushahidi attempt to bring us closer to those who do not have a voice in national or established international media. But again, this depends on having internet access.

Maybe internet access is not a fundamental human right, but it certainly is a valuable, empowering tool that has changed the way we see the world and each other. Still, it is not without borders – not truly without limits. We have tried to explore many of these limits on Free Speech Debate over the last two years.

Even where we are able to use the internet to reach across state borders often laws restrict what can be transmitted. Be it for copyright reasons or governmental censorship, despite the power of the internet we are not able to transmit information as freely as the borderless kingdoms of Twitter and Facebook which may soon be the ‘nation’ with the largest population worldwide would have us believe. When tweeting, we need to be careful what we say. Cases of people charged with offences in Britain, the US and India have been in the news and covered on our site. In the UK there are now guidelines to regulate speech on Twitter, as Dominic Burbidge discusses here. Surveillance, too, is an obstacle to free speech. We can only speak freely if we dare to do so, without fear of repercussions and consequence. Still, on the internet subversive culture and expression is often freer than it can be in other media. China, with its online culture, is only one important example of how this works.

And some laws and regulations are a good thing. We should, after all, speak with civility to enable productive debate and exchange, and not stir hatred and violence. Words are still weapons if we choose to use them so. Just think of the “Innocence of Muslims” YouTube video, posted in the US in 2012 that became the occasion for violence across the world. Bullying online is as grave an issue as in the offline world, as the tragic death of Amanda Todd in 2012 showed.

The internet is not perfect, it has its dark corners and dangers. It can empower and connect us, but it also brings responsibility with it. Can it overcome the differences of countries, continents and cultures? It can certainly help us to understand each other, and it can bring development and education to many. To extend the reach of the internet to include an ever higher percentage of the world’s population is a huge project, but a vital one.

Judith Bruhn is the online editor of Free Speech Debate.


Comments (4)

Automated machine translations are provided by Google Translate. They should give you a rough idea of what the contributor has said, but cannot be relied on to give an accurate, nuanced translation. Please read them with this in mind.

  1. “Is internet access a human right?”
    To an observer, establishment machinations in regard to the interweb might be reminiscent of the old joke concerning an octopus and a set of bagpipes. Beyond all the current confused thrashing about. Should said entity discover it can’t **** that apparatus, there then exists potential for squeezing something harmonious from it. The mechanism offers a means to circumvent the natural ‘gatekeeper’ mentality of some humans. Utilised to artificially stifle meritocracy, as this constitutes competition, in favour of promoting self-interest. The former being in the long term interests of the majority, and the later the short term interests of a minority. Yet reappraisal would suggest that advancements of all kinds, some even beneficial to that ‘elite’, are denied delivery during their lifetime by that approach. This disconnect with reality is evidenced by the mentality of those ‘self-made’ individuals, who denigrate the contributions made by everyone else. For if relocated to an uninhabited isle, what sort of empire might they be able to amass for themselves in the isolation found there?

    “Tim Berner-Lee, founder of the World Wide Web”
    has devised a means for distancing vulnerable messengers from those with authority, yet an apparently underdeveloped sense of responsibility. Who would prefer not to acknowledge existence, let alone delivery, of iconoclastic missives. Imagine the Nuremberg rallies, with a few whistleblowers at the back of the throng. Fully empowered to raise inconvenient questions, concerning how the methodology proposed was ever going work in practice. It would even prove somewhat difficult for emperors to maintain an un-flushed face, were their notional nakedness all over the web-waves. Great leaders automatically tend to seek out those who will tell them what they might not want to hear. Since resulting decisions are more likely to register with, and practically address, the challenges of actual reality. A strategic strength, characterised by campaigns bedevilled by far fewer u-turns.

    “We need to get people thinking more global”
    Do we really need to go that far Tim? Since simply getting them to think outside the (osseus) box on their shoulders, should be sufficient. It takes just a few elementary questions, to have most alert themselves to the contradiction between what we assume to be actual and what can be demonstrated as actual. Vision, for example, is not a ‘passive’ procedure with the brain ‘looking’ out though an inert aperture in the cranium. It is an ‘active’ activity involving a series of stages. Each one of which can inadvertently introduce distortion, to subsequently develop into delusion.

    “Global Voices”
    Sounds like a possible banner, for the remote journalistic venture envisaged by Glenn Greenwald. Where investigation of injustices, apparently blocked by those establishments of the countries in which they are taking place, can occur. Stories such as entrepreneurs allegedly being forced out of business, having their companies’ assets stripped, and taxation liabilities sequestered, by government owned predatory financial institutions, might be publicised. A two tier system of law is on par with optional rules for road etiquette. Either we all confine ourselves to an agreed side, or there will inevitably be a catastrophic coming together.

    “We should, after all, speak with civility to enable productive debate and exchange”
    Even though insults should only exhibit an impact potential concomitant with the esteem in which the person making them is held? In addition hinting, that said mass debater has personally exhausted the means for further cogently arguing the merits of their case. That said, even interweb agent provocateurs must retain the right to attempt to make their point, if there be one. For in common with neonates, they may not be in a position to express themselves or make their needs intelligible to others. Yet that does not preclude them from being tended, in the hope that they will contribute something invaluable. Such as evidence for the following: If single shared reality is a given, then a multiplicity of divergent understandings of that reality cannot be demonstrated to be simultaneously correct. They may however, all be shown to be incorrect. Thus we may all be witless, to some degree or other. The only hope of some compensatory saving grace, possibly coming from being painfully aware of that.

  2. Internet access as a fundamental human right is best seen as a subset of freedom of speech. As such, it is a protective right not to have the state directly or indirectly encroach upon one’s ability (such as it may be) to speak.

    That is quite different from a so-called positive right to internet access, expressed as a universal right to be provided with access to the means of communication. The latter inevitably involves coercing others, usually via the State, to provide someone with an internet connection. One can debate whether as a matter of policy that is something that the state should do, but it has nothing to do with fundamental human rights (except in the negative sense of the threats to free speech that tend to follow when the means of communication becomes dependent on state subsidy).

    Eliding protective rights and universal state provision ends up diluting the first, since freedom of speech then becomes just one in a long laundry list of state policy goals to be squabbled over in the political arena. The core purpose of the human right – protection from the coercive powers of the state – is lost.

    More in the same vein here:

  3. It’s so clear that Internet is not perfect, but sometimes, we temporally consider the bad effects or the dark corners as the price of the freedom.

    • Yes, I absolutely agree Alexander. The internet is such a powerful tool. Just because there are negative sides we cannot disregard the internet and its huge advantages.

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Free Speech Debate is a research project of the Dahrendorf Programme for the Study of Freedom at St Antony's College in the University of Oxford.

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