In a 2015 speech, President Barack Obama said, "Today, high-speed broadband is not a luxury, it's a necessity." Even as the number of WiFi connected smartphones explodes and tens of millions of kids are now growing up as digital natives, less than 50 percent of the world's population has internet access.
In the US, that number is lower—according to the Pew Research Center, only about 13 percent of Americans weren't online in 2016. Besides the elderly (the largest group of internet non-users are over 65), rural and poorer people have less access. According to Pew, "Adults from households earning less than $30,000 a year are roughly eight times more likely than the most affluent adults to not use the internet," and those living far outside urban areas are about twice as likely not to have access compared to their city-living counterparts.
Getting everyone online seems like a no-brainer: There can't be anyone who opposes spreading knowledge and the empowerment that comes with it, right? Not exactly. There are some looking to keep the internet out of people's hands. But who and why? "Authoritarian governments, when they cut off access to the internet for their citizens; democratic governments, when they put forward proposals that value wealthy entertainers over poor citizens; corporations, when they use their power to deny users access to their platforms," says Jillian York, director for international freedom of expression at the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
"A right doesn't mean you have to provide it for everyone. It means you can't take it away."
It's this kind of pushback that caused the United Nations Human Rights Council to pass a non-binding resolution last year that condemned any group that took away or disrupted access to the internet. Seventy countries, including the US, signed it. The framing here matters—nobody has the right to block access to getting online says the UN. But does that mean it's a human right?
Some say yes: "A right doesn't mean you have to provide it for everyone. It means you can't take it away—like education. You can't deny someone from going to school. So you shouldn't be able to deny people the right to get online to participate as global citizens," says Kosta Grammatis, an activist who founded a nonprofit, A Human Right, that worked on several related projects (including free internet for developing countries via satellite arrays) from 2009-2016.
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Some disagree, not necessarily because they want to block access, but more because they want to make sure we are addressing the right ideals when we are talking human rights. The so-called "father of the internet," net neutrality proponent, and Google evangelist, Vint Cerf wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times saying "technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself." He went on to explain: "The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure. These include critical freedoms like freedom of speech and freedom of access to information — and those are not necessarily bound to any particular technology at any particular time."
York, at the EFF, agrees we need to keep our eye on the prize of upholding rights already accepted. "Freedom of expression and access to information are existing rights," she told VICE Impact. "The internet is the medium." But she went on to clarify, reflecting that this medium is an especially powerful one: "As governments seek to impose penalties on users, from internet shutdowns to three-strikes rules for IP violations, it may be important to assert access to the internet as a human right."
These fine distinctions matter when you're up against giants in the telecom industry, who Grammatis sees as fighting against what the majority want. "As American citizens, we have, over and over again, with SOPA and PIPA and other popularly supported net neutrality campaigns, asserted that we want to have a free and open, neutral internet. Everybody knows it," says Grammatis, who points to Chattanooga, Tennessee as a success story.
Chattanooga is the first to have a citywide gigabit-per-second fiber internet network, which has been a boon for businesses, ultimately turning the Tennessee city into an "internet boomtown." Chattanooga accomplished what many a small American city would like to by taking the Internet into its own hands—its fiber system is publicly owned, not privately run by a telecom business. Other cities have done similar programs, while more want to, but telecom businesses have made it difficult, successfully fighting to create rules and regulations disallowing public ownership and access to the internet.
"It is all about politics if you want to change the internet."
While a locality has an interest in connecting all its citizens, a profit-seeking telecom company doesn't, which is why we see a significant divide between urban and rural internet availability in the US.
"In rural areas, there's not a lot of [financial] incentive for telecoms to wire them up," explains Grammatis. With less bang for their buck, most telecom companies don't want to bother. But even urban areas have their problems. Time Warner notoriously promised to bring fiber Internet to NYC in exchange for huge tax breaks, and didn't fulfill its promises, and is currently being sued by the city for lying about its broadband rates.
If you want to ensure better Internet access for your community, Grammatis suggests checking out the North Carolina Broadband Commission's recommendations and then pressuring your legislators. The telecom companies—and their donations—are regularly doing the same. "It is all about politics if you want to change the internet. Ask: 'Why is it not a utility?'— You can't take a utility away. There should be laws about minimum speeds, affordability," says Grammatis.
York recommends the Keep It On campaign, led by Access Now and the EFF. It seeks to "ensure that governments cannot deny access to the internet for their citizens, and has been successful in restoring access in a number of places," says York. If you have either money or time, both can be used to fight for internet for all of us.
You can also join in on the global protest of the Internet-Wide Day of Net Neutrality on July 12.