The United Nations has declared access to the internet a ‘basic human right’. The report calls upon all UN states to ensure that they maintain access to the internet at all times – even in times of political unrest.
This is in the nick of time when the internet, from its inception a bastion of free speech, is facing attacks to that freedom on a variety of fronts.
While Middle Eastern protests have showcased the use of social media such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube to accelerate change, worldwide governments are trying to gag similar uprisings. The UN’s announcement came on a day when two-thirds of Syria’s internet access had reportedly gone dark.
A debate for democratic societies too
The debate is no less relevant in the UK. You only have to look at the debate surrounding a certain footballer, a super injunction and Twitter to see that we can’t take freedom of speech for granted.
Ok, so there’s a big difference between political dissent and celebrity tittle-tattle, but the issues are the same. Should the internet be censored? And where do you draw the line between free speech and an individual’s right to privacy?
Just this weekend, I was watching the BBC’s The Big Question featuring Alastair Campbell and Max Clifford, among others. As one savvy audience member pointed out, these are no longer questions for governments and celebrities alone. In an age of Google and Facebook, any one of us could see our dirty washing laundered in public. And as few of us can afford £20,000 for a super injunction, what about our right to privacy?
Fundamental access rights
While the UN’s focus is on politics, there are more basic concerns. If internet access is a basic human right then everyone, including low-income households, should be online.
Last year Finland became the first country to coerce providers into supplying connections for all its residents, a move backed by Conversation commenter Mr Gus:
‘There are so many services now that can only be accessed online that consumers left without a connection to the digital world will be seriously at a disadvantage’.
Similarly, a lack of experience shouldn’t exclude people from the benefits of the internet and yet an estimated nine million Britons have never been online. Initiatives such as Race Online 2012 are plugging this gap by enlisting digital champions and providing discounted computers. This is all money well spent, when those not online are missing out on tangible financial savings and access to essential government services.
Equally, they may be missing out on their right to freedom of speech. And since this is a right the United Nations is now fully backing, hopefully it’s a right that’s here to stay.