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 internet.org 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.