When United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres highlighted the global effort required to get back on track towards achieving the sustainable development goals in his report in 2021, he specifically called out the need for universal access to the internet, among the other issue areas.

“Now is the time to renew the social contract between governments and their people and within societies,” he said. “[The contract should] include updated governance arrangements to deliver better public goods and usher in a new era of universal social protection, health coverage, education, skills, decent work and housing, as well as universal access to the internet by 2030 as a basic human right.”

Acknowledging internet access as a human right follows an announcement by the UN in 2016 thatmeasures to intentionally prevent or disrupt access to or dissemination of information online (is) in violation of international human rights law.”

The UN noted then that access to the internet needed to be anchored in a human rights-based approach, and that the internet should “ be open, accessible, and nurtured by multi-stakeholder participation.”

In 2020, as countries implemented stringent measures to tackle COVID-19, life moved online, and the internet became the only way in which education and work could continue for millions worldwide. The internet was also a crucial resource for finding and sharing life-saving public health information about the pandemic, making it a vital part of accessing the basic right to health.

This proved that access to the internet is both an enabler for the enjoyment of other human rights, while also increasingly becoming a basic right itself.

The Internet Is a Vital Tool for Participation in Democracy

Felicia Anthonio is the #KeepItOn campaign manager at an organization called Access Now, which works in defending and extending digital rights globally.

The #KeepItOn campaign was launched in 2016 to combat internet shutdowns around the world. Today, the movement works with 280 organizations across 105 countries in its fight to ensure internet access.

The internet and social media platforms have become critical parts of civic space, and can sometimes be more open and accessible than actual physical civic space in countries where the opportunities to protest, organize, and speak freely are limited. It is for this reason that the internet is sometimes restricted.

#KeepItOn was created after Egypt shut down the internet during the Arab Spring, which was a major wake-up call for activists globally — subsequent disruptions occured after that. Since then, civil society has become more aware of the increased use of internet shutdowns by government and state authorities.

“Whenthe campaign was launched, it was in response to the increasing use of the act by governments and other authorities to crack down on dissent,” Anthonio told Global Citizen. “When you look at the way internet shutdowns happen, you can see clearly they violate the fundamental rights of people. They also undermine political and social activities like protests, because it prevents people from coordinating and mobilizing to protest against policies that are unacceptable to them.”

She adds that these shutdowns have economic consequences too, as people rely on the internet to conduct business, and therefore make an income and provide for their families.

Internet shutdowns often have a more severe impact on already vulnerable groups, according to Anthonio.

Part of the work Access Now and other such organizations do is aimed at bridging the digital gaps among various countries and communities, as shutdowns tend to widen the divide.

Anthonio explains that there is a gap between women with access to the internet as compared to men, and therefore disruption to access to the internet also has a gendered impact. Shutdowns are also more likely to impact poorer people and communities, and people with disabilities face added barriers with accessing the internet and its tools.

With civil society organizations monitoring internet access as a means of freedom of expression, there have been some noticeable trends. Anthonio shares that, between 2018 and 2019, there was an increase in recorded shutdowns with 196 incidents in 2018 and 213 in 2019. She notes that the numbers declined to 159 in 2020, but rose in 2021 with 182 recorded shutdowns.

Anthonio notes that there are instances of prolonged internet shutdowns, such as in countries like Pakistan, particularly in its Federally Administered Tribal Areas, where the internet was disrupted in 2016 and restored in 2021.

“We did get stories from people about how they had to travel to other parts of Pakistan to be able to access the internet, students complaining about how they were being left behind because they cannot engage in the digital space,” she said.

The Case for Internet Access as a Basic Human Right

Koketso Moeti is the executive director of a civil society organization called Amandla Mobi in South Africa. Moeti explains that it works to “turn every cell phone into a democracy building tool.”

The organization leads campaigns that aim to provide power to Black people, specifically focusing on low-income Black women.

“We bring our community together to take targeted, coordinated, and strategic action on issues impacting low-income Black women,” she told Global Citizen. “We are very clear that when low-income Black women move forward, society as a whole moves forward.”

In South Africa, mobile phones and mobile data are the dominant way in which the internet and online services are accessed, as broadband rollout has been slow and limited to affluent areas.

However, South Africa has some of the highest mobile data costs in Africa and, as of 2022, it ranked 148th out of 228 countries on data prices overall. This has a significant impact on a country with the world’s highest levels of inequality, with a majority poor population.

In 2016, Amandla Mobi launched a petition against the high costs of mobile data in South Africa, arguing that internet access changed the world, but excluded the poor — the very people who would benefit the most from the access to information, education, jobs, and income the internet has unlocked.

“Our position is that not only is data too expensive in this country, but if you are a low-income consumer, you are paying disproportionately more for the internet,” Moeti said. “If you are a low-income user, you are much more likely to be using smaller data bundles. You are much more likely to fall into out-of-bundle rates as well.”

Moeti explained that in both cases, the data costs end up being so much more than the costs for a user who is able to get a contract phone with data — she said their fees would be up to 11 times cheaper than a low-income consumer.

Moeti says that this disproportionate impact on poorer people has several consequences.

As an example, she highlights that in one of South Africa's provinces, the economic hub of Gauteng, the school application process for grades one to eight has moved online. This creates discrimination around who can access placements in the best schools.

She also adds that a number of institutions, including some state institutions, strictly advertise jobs online, which creates the same access issue — meaning people are missing out on work opportunities.

“The internet plays a crucial role in a whole range of things. But as we've also seen, the growing adoption of digital devices and technologies has enabled new forms of political participation, extending civic space beyond the physical realm, which has meant that certain people are excluded from this,” she said.

For Moeti, in addition to a reduction in the high cost of mobile data, the future involves a universal basic access to the internet for all.

“We believe in universal basic access that is not too dependent on private interests,” she said. “So data was a gateway to how we work towards universal basic access.”

How You Can Take Action to Help

We all play a role in safeguarding the internet as a critical part of democracy, according to Anthonio.

“I think that we all have a responsibility, whether or not your government has shut down the internet before, it's important for you to be aware that this is happening, and to know how it's affecting people negatively,” Anthonio said. “Furthermore, we should start talking about the role of the internet — or the role internet access — plays during elections … Internet access facilitates citizen participation during elections and it is important to sensitize the public about digital rights issues.”

Supporting the work of organizations like Access Now is another way in which people can help make the internet free and open to all.

For Moeti, even though achieving universal basic access is still a ways away, she believes public outcry and participation — like the kind that led to some reduction of mobile data prices in South Africa through #DataMustFall — will be critical.

“We must not forget that the processes that were undertaken — the change in regulations, the commission of inquiry into data costs, etc. — were the result of public outcry and the mobilization of people saying, ‘Enough is enough,’” she said. “We have seen it repeatedly. Nothing would have been done by any regulator without us saying that this is possible, and this is wrong because of this, and this, and this ... I do think that there is potential [for universal basic access to the internet], if we make it an issue.”

This article is part of a series connected to defending advocacy and civic spaces, made possible thanks to funding from the Ford Foundation.

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