Rights in the Digital Age: Freedom of Access

Think about this: we talk about digital natives and rights, flying to the moon and back, space-age technology and what not, but the problem still remains that a majority of us do not have access to technologies that connect us with ‘that’ digital world.

Computer, broadband and Internet access, WiFi, GPRS, mobile communications and more remain glossy ads in tech magazines for the millions who just dream about the world we inhabit or worse perhaps, don’t even know of its existence. Of course, they don’t really know what they are missing out on or the benefits, profits or advantages of being part of a community that identifies itself as ‘children of the digital age’. Just like house, career, car and a good lifestyle are aspirational benchmarks for a good life of the middle class population, so has access to technology become one more to add to that aspirational list.

There are two points I am making here: one concerns the larger public, the majority in this world who are economically backward, below-poverty-line folks surviving on bare minimum food rations and wages. They will never have access to technology in this lifetime and I am assuming here, won’t be really concerned if they don’t find out what the Net is all about.

The second concerns the lower-to-middle class population who have access to technology but this access is under-utilised, disrupted, corrupted, unpredictable or comes at a cost. It’s not only economics that govern the right to access online technologies, it’s also about timing, position, age, security, general educational background and interest and so on.

The right to access the Net, log on to it and discover its vast contents, and navigation and communication should be simple, non-authoritarian and free from the politics of exploitation, surveillance, government force, security threat or real or invisible barricades.

Schools, colleges and public training institutes should have mandatory Internet access kiosks with minimal or nominal admission charges; hospitals and emergency centers should have kiosks where patients can log in to check information, access critical data and more; public spaces such as recreation centers, gaming zones and museums should also have special Net Access zones. After all, there is no expiry date on or control or titles deeds to information and it should be available for citizens to access as and when they want to.

Crucially, if you look at it from a gender point of view, women continue to fight for the Right to Access Digital Technologies, and are facing tougher challenges from the domestic front, authoritative regimes, social constructs of gender roles and behavior, lack of support systems for education and illiteracy.

Right to Access has to become a Constitutional Right. The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 2) actually enshrines this as one of the primary rights of disabled persons – right to digital accessibility. Surprisingly, our general human rights treaties or codes don’t guarantee that. Have you thought about what you can do to lobby for access to digital technologies for your friend, neighbour or the needy nerd?

Nilofar Ansher

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