Has Internet Access Become a Basic Human Right?

With several countries globally declaring internet access to be a basic human provision and digital giants financing free-access projects, the Internet is becoming a necessity of modern society. This viewpoint will accelerate further going forward as key public segments such as education and health move into the online domain. However, with many developing countries unable to subsidise Internet infrastructure, advanced economies and international organizations will have to step in to help out.

Global Internet Users and Population: 2009-2030

Global Internet Users and population bar graph from 2009 to 2030.

Source: Euromonitor International from International Telecommunications Union/OECD/national statistics

Note:  2015-2030 figures are forecast

  • Countries including Finland, Estonia, Spain, Greece and Costa Rica have made basic Internet access part of their citizens’ fundamental rights. Yet this privilege has largely been reserved for advanced economies that are able to finance nationwide broadband projects. On a global scale, around 4.0 billion people remained without web access as of 2014, largely based in developing countries.
  • Digital companies also have a stake in seeing Internet access become a basic commodity worldwide, as a larger online audience drives a higher rate of online consumption in segments such as e-commerce, social media and gaming. However, there are concerns about the economic benefits of financing Internet in areas where food and shelter are of much greater priority.

Implications

Internet advocates believe that the web can significantly improve standards of living, especially as key segments such as health and education are increasingly becoming accessible online:

  • There is almost universal agreement worldwide that the web has become a fundamental necessity of modern society. A 2014 study commissioned by the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI) revealed that 83.0% of respondents in 24 countries believe web access is a basic human right. However, governments have fallen well short of delivering Internet connectivity, with less than 40.0% of the world’s population online in 2014.
  • Where states have failed, private companies have taken up the slack. Google’s Project Loon looks to use a global network of high-altitude balloons to connect people in rural and remote areas. The Internet giant has invested over US$5.0 million in the project as of early 2015, but the potential corporate gains are huge as every new Internet user is a potential Google user.
  • There is, however, concern that investments in Internet infrastructure in third-world countries by states and private firms can be better used in more pressing areas, such as clean water, shelter and food. This is especially the case since a large proportion of the populace in such areas is illiterate and unable to use digital devices. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, literacy was just below 60.0% of the population aged 15+ in 2014.

Adult Literacy and Internet Penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa: 2009-2014

Adult Literacy and Internet penetration in Sub-Saharan Africa graph from 2009 to 2014.

Source: Euromonitor International from UNESCO/national statistics/Telecommunications Union/OECD

  • Nonetheless, there is a definitive global trend of more key segments expanding or moving to the online domain, which is justifying the Internet as an essential platform for improving one’s standard of living. Apart from increasingly web-reliant areas such as employment and retail, the essentials of health and education are making inroads to the web. The benefits of accessing such services in infrastructure-depleted developing nations can potentially transform lives.
  • As much as the web is a human right, it can also be increasingly described as a ‘business right’. The benefits of having an online presence and the capability to attract consumers online for a business can provide a beneficial ripple effect across an entire economy. The EU’s Digital Agenda, for example, aims at providing high-speed broadband across Europe due to the high economic rewards of well-connected markets. Business broadband Internet use in the EU stood at 92.1% of companies in 2014.

Prospects

  • Going forward, public Internet initiatives are set to receive increased support worldwide, as the influence of the web on economic growth continues to rise. According to the World Bank, in developing countries a 10.0% increase in Internet access adds on average 1.3-2.5% to GDP. In addition to health and education, disaster relief and governance will become increasingly more reliant on web access.
  • Large companies will have a pivotal role in delivering Internet to white-spot areas, due to their more efficient implementation of funds and lower levels of corruption compared to governments. Both Facebook and Coca-Cola announced projects aimed at bringing Internet access to underserved African communities in mid-2014. According to a 2014 McKinsey & Co report, If Internet use proliferates in Africa at the rate mobile phones did in the early 2000s, the continent stands to add as much as $300 billion to its economic growth by 2025.
  • The Internet is increasingly a human right not as a technology in itself or as an entertainment tool, but as a catalyst for economic and academic self-improvement. And that surely is an investment worth making by companies and states. At current rates, only around 50.0% of the global population will be online by 2030.