While many countries and corporations treat broadband as just another exploitable resource, experts have been making the case for years that internet access is better viewed as a fundamental utility—essential for free expression and a healthy democracy.
A new study out of the UK takes the argument one step further, arguing that internet access is a basic human right that should be provided for free to those who can’t afford it.
The new study, published this week in the Journal of Applied Philosophy, comes courtesy of Dr. Merten Reglitz, a lecturer in global ethics at the University of Birmingham. In it, Reglitz makes the case that internet access is an essential part of keeping those in power accountable.
“Internet access is not merely a luxury for those who can afford it,” Reglitz said. “It is instead highly conducive to a multitude of crucial human interests and rights. Internet access is a uniquely effective way for lobbying and holding accountable global players like global governance institutions and multinational corporations.”
The debate over whether broadband is a luxury or essential utility has stumbled around the internet for years. According to the UN, an estimated 44 percent of the planet still lacks any access to the internet whatsoever. FCC data suggests about 25 million Americans lack access to broadband, a number that’s likely worse thanks to our terrible broadband maps.
Reglitz points out that gender can dictate access as well. A 2017 World Wide Web Foundation study found that men globally are 33 percent more likely to have access to the internet.
In the States, giant monopolies like Comcast want broadband treated as a lightly regulated and exploitable luxury good. Frustrated consumers, tired of high prices and limited availability, have embraced the idea of broadband as an essential utility, a major reason why hundreds and towns and cities have started building their own broadband networks.
In 2016, a report from the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly declared access to the internet to be a basic human right, integral to allowing individuals to "exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression."
“The Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies,” the UN said.
“As such, facilitating access to the Internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all States,” it added.
But Reglitz believes the UN should have gone further. He says the UN’s pledge to simply project offline rights online isn’t enough, and the medium also requires stalwart protection from abuse, censorship, disinformation, and other pitfalls.
“I argue instead that Internet access is itself a moral human right that requires that everyone has unmonitored and uncensored access to this global medium, which should be publicly provided free of charge for those unable to afford it,” he said.
Reglitz points to several examples of his broader goal being carried out in practice. The Indian state of Kerala, for example, has declared universal internet access a human right and plans for its 35 million people to have universal access by this year. In the EU, the WiFi4EU initiative aims to deliver free WiFi to every village and city public square by 2020.
Granted many well publicized efforts to expand access wind up being less than advertised.
Facebook’s widely lauded “Free Basics” program, for example, promised free internet access to a select number of Facebook-curated websites in some countries. But the project was derailed after being widely criticized by activists in India for violating net neutrality, and little more than a thinly veiled effort to corner local advertising markets and consumer data.
Reglitz also concedes that access itself doesn’t automatically equate to broader human rights, as the rampant spread of internet propaganda and the disinformation-fueled genocides in Myanmar make clear. Providing universal access isn’t enough, he argues, leaders also must protect it from predatory corporations and authoritarian governments.
“The human right to free Internet access requires of states to prevent the proliferation of technology that allows for the censorship and surveillance of online activities,” Reglitz said. “States have moral obligations to regulate the business activities of domestic information communication technology companies that sell such technology.”