Who’s Stopping Us From Accessing the Internet?

Accessing the Interwebz

Other than tyrannical governments and rising broadband prices, there are several barriers stopping us from accessing the net. Is the UN listening?

Access to Internet is now a basic human right, declared the United Nation Special Rapporteur, and no world citizen should be denied access to the net or its contents on grounds of gender, race, censorship, government tyranny and surveillance. It’s specially marked under the category of “freedom of expression”. What remains unsaid is that securing access to the Internet, via broadband, WiFi or mobile connections, would be the responsibility of the citizen. It’s thus down to affordability for those who do understand the importance of being a ‘digital’ citizen.

As I see it, Internet access was never about denial of services from the ISPs, or if you refer to the case of tyrannical governments short-circuiting the Internet, that’s more of a recent and temporary phenomenon. Accessing the Internet has more to do with ‘degrees of penetration’ in the form of class hierarchy and social status. It’s logical: the higher you stand in the economic ladder, the easier it is for you to “access” the best schools, medical care, legal services, and of course, broadband and wireless net services in your locality.

Consider a typical, middle-class family. Here, a school-going kid would access Internet in her class or computer lab; her elder brother, a college student would visit a cybercafé or library to chat with friends or get his homework done and listen to music; the working mother has Internet at work or the company would perhaps loan laptops to employees; lastly, the father, a working professional, would also be able to afford a desktop, a netbook or net-enabled smartphone via installment or loan schemes. Here, access to Internet was never a problem, it was just about affordability.

So, for those who live below the poverty line, the UN Declaration probably doesn’t carry special significance; it’s one among hundreds of other “basic rights” that they have legitimate access to, but never derive the benefit of. Would those without drinking water, food in the bellies and sanitation facilities even understand what Internet is? No shelter, no homes, no job or steady employment, disease-ridden – would they care about fighting for their “right to be online”? Here, even if barriers to access are reduced – bringing down the cost of computers or subsidizing broadband connections, would governments guarantee uninterrupted power supply to those living in shanties and slums? Declaring access to Internet as a basic human right comes across as a mockery for those who die of starvation every day.

Does the UN report talk specifically about reducing barriers to access? It does make references to the barriers faced by those who already have Internet connections: governments denying net access to citizens in times of crisis or revolutions (denying them freedom of expression), and makes a case study of the Arab revolutions and civil rights movements in Africa where Facebook and other websites were blocked. I don’t see this as a barrier; rather it’s a political situation where civil rights have been violated. It does not deal with the larger epidemic plaguing constitutions today: our rights don’t necessarily take care of our needs, and most often, they don’t even ensure protection of what is stipulated or mandated.

The UN report comes across as “reactionary”, more as a finger pointing exercise directed at dictatorial regimes that have blocked websites and shut down the Internet in retaliation to civic protests. “Each state should thus develop a concrete and effective policy to make the Internet widely available, accessible, and affordable to all segments of population,” says the report, however, it does not lay down specific provisions or pass guidelines that call for universal access and the due procedures that should allow for such a situation. It’s politically correct to club people living below the poverty line – no drinking water, sanitation facilities or food in their stomachs – in the “all segments” category, but honestly they don’t. They survive without the benefits of ANY basic human rights; access to Internet is certainly not on their priority list.

Instead of driving an artificial, rights-based democracy – where everyone is encouraged to “fight for their rights” – perhaps the focus could be directed towards reducing barriers that keep people from practicing their rights. The UN needs to foster an inclusive guideline for countries to remove barriers to access: infrastructure that props up only urban and monied sections of the city; tackling illiteracy, writing and basic spoken English skills; frequent power cuts or pilfering electricity; low telecom penetration of landline phones (dial-up Internet is still a reality); reducing unemployment and providing steady jobs for both men and women in poor sections. There is so much to be done at the grassroots; logging online to Google.com just doesn’t begin to cut it.

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