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Should internet access be a basic human right?

The cost of living crisis has driven a million users offline in the UK – here, Dr Merten Reglitz makes the case for universal internet access, and the dangers of digital inequality

In 2023, having access to the internet doesn’t just mean scrolling through memes and ingesting the Twitter hellscape – it’s not simply about entertainment, or staying in touch with your friends, or keeping up with an endless barrage of bad news, either. For better or worse (and probably the latter) a large portion of our lives now depends on a stable WiFi connection. Want to put a roof over your head? Enter your email here. Looking for medical help? Join the online waiting list. Trying to find work? Good luck going door to door with your paper CVs.

The point is, the internet has become inextricable from our lives, and it’s only going to get more crucial as time goes on. But where does that leave the people who can’t easily get online? According to a recent report from the independent charity Citizens Advice, up to one million people cancelled their broadband in the last year, thanks to the cost of living crisis. Universal credit claimants were six times more likely to have gone offline than non-claimants. It’s a vicious cycle: those forced to cancel their internet plans will often have a harder time finding work or accessing financial support in the future. Meanwhile, tariffs intended to reduce the cost of getting online aren’t advertised well enough for people to make use of them, with only around five per cent of households making use of available reductions.

For some, this internet access inequality is considered an important human rights issue. Back in 2019, then-Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn acknowledged that “what was once a luxury is now an essential utility” as he announced plans to roll out free full-fibre broadband across Britain. In March this year, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Volker Türk, echoed this idea as he told the Human Rights Council: “It may be time to reinforce universal access to the internet as a human right, and not just a privilege.”

When it comes to the internet, of course, we’re not talking about human rights as fundamental as the rights to life, freedom, sustenance, education, or protest (not that the UK government cares much about these, either). We are, however, talking about a technology that’s increasingly tangled up with all of the above, and essential for keeping up with the pace of the modern world. “If people don’t have any food, they starve. If people don’t have internet access, they can still do lots of things offline, it’s just a lot less convenient,” says Merten Reglitz, a senior lecturer in global ethics at the University of Birmingham, who specialises in internet ethics. “But I would argue it’s not just a matter of convenience... overall, the opportunity cost for them, having to do everything offline, is just too great. You can’t properly function in our society anymore, without internet access.”

That being said, Reglitz doesn’t believe that nationalising internet access, as suggested by Labour four years ago, is absolutely necessary to counteract Britain’s access inequality problem. And what would putting the internet in public hands even look like, anyway? Would local governments provide broadband that competes with private tech companies? Would the government buy out the whole infrastructure, and provide all the data services as well? Do we trust the government to have that much control over our online lives?

“What is more important than nationalising the infrastructure is that we ensure universal access, and that there is some kind of version of enforced net neutrality,” Reglitz suggests. Below, the philosopher tells Dazed about how that could become a reality, how the internet impacts our human rights, and why it’s so important to usher in universal access.

@citizensadvice 1 million people cancelled their broadband in the last year because they couldn’t afford it #Internet #Broadband #LearnOnTikTok ♬ original sound - aakritilovesssyouuuu

Firstly, why should internet access be treated as a human rights issue?

Merten Reglitz: Having internet access today has become practically indispensable for having adequate opportunities to exercise our human rights. It’s not enough that we have the freedom to do something. Think, for instance, about the human right to education or healthcare: it’s not enough that you have the freedom to go out there and purchase the services, because there are lots of people that wouldn’t be able to afford it. What we do is provide free healthcare, we provide free secondary and primary education to people.

Today, you need internet access to make use of your human rights. A couple of very obvious examples are our human rights to free expression, to free information, to free association [or assembly]. In all these cases, we can take a person that has no internet access and compare the opportunities to someone who has internet access. The inequality that exists is problematic. It’s a rights issue because if you don’t have that access, you are objectively disadvantaged.

How does the internet facilitate these basic human rights?

Merten Reglitz: If we look at the opportunities a person has to exercise free expression without the internet, they can of course write to newspapers, they can speak at Speaker’s Corner, or they can go to town hall meetings. But if you have internet, you can use social media platforms. There’s no guarantee that someone is going to hear you, but technically you have the ability to reach a wide audience. And if we’re searching for any kind of information, we normally don’t go to the public library anymore. We don’t normally start reading back issues of newspapers. We go online.

These kind of political rights are pretty well accepted. But think about our right to work, and how difficult it is to get employment, to apply for jobs, if you don’t have internet access. Think about our right to a decent standard of living, which includes finding accommodation. Think of cultural participation. Yes, you can do that offline, but these days platforms like TikTok are seen as a revolution [in] how people create content and access content. 

My claim is not that you cannot exercise human rights offline. My claim is that if you are limited to offline opportunities you are unjustly disadvantaged in enjoying your human rights.

“If you are limited to offline opportunities you are unjustly disadvantaged in enjoying your human rights” – Merten Reglitz

So, do you think that the internet makes people’s lives better overall, when they have access to it?

Merten Reglitz: I think we should distinguish two things. One, is that there is a problem when some people have internet access and others don’t. Then, there’s a second question, about whether the internet has made our lives better off overall. Some people say it hasn’t: there’s surveillance capitalism, the attention economy, loss of privacy, misinformation, loss of contact with the physical world. 

I think I’m a bit more optimistic. The internet has created lots of opportunities for us, but the problem right now is the way it’s being used. Mass surveillance by governments isn’t a necessary feature of the internet. It is the way that we use it. So I think it could be a lot better than it is right now, but it’s not as bad as people make it out to be. That would only be the case if we couldn’t control it.

What do you make of the class inequality surrounding internet access, which has seen the poorest in society disconnected from online life?

Merten Reglitz: To receive social benefits, you’re expected to have an email address. It’s just expected that you can go online [to access] many of the public services that we have, and people that aren’t able to afford it often rely on those services. Now, they incur an additional disadvantage. 

If the numbers from Ofcom are correct, [and] only five per cent of households that would be eligible to benefit from social tariffs are actually making use of them right now, there’s a problem of information. [Tariffs] haven’t been advertised widely enough by internet service providers, partly because they will not make as much profit. Some campaigners have also pointed out that even if you have access to social tariffs, they might bring down your bill to £15 a month, but there will be some people who won’t be able to afford even that. 

It’s also a matter of devices. That’s why, during the pandemic, the government hurried to distribute more than one million free devices to disadvantaged families, so that children could continue studying when education went online. Yes, social tariffs need to be advertised more widely, so people will make use of them, but there’s more that’s required to make sure everybody really has access.

“The internet has created lots of opportunities for us, but the problem right now is the way it’s being used” – Merten Reglitz

Where does the responsibility lie? With the government? With service providers?

Merten Reglitz: If we think of the internet as a basic utility – which I think it has become, because of its importance for rights, not primarily for watching Netflix or using Amazon – the state has an obligation to help [people] out. There is a responsibility for private companies, as well, though, to play their part. Partly they’re doing this, because they’re offering social tariffs, but it’s only going half way if they don’t advertise it adequately.

Is internet access inequality a similar issue outside the UK?

Merten Reglitz: Some countries have done a bit more than social tariffs. In the US, Joe Biden’s administration has instructed the FCC to provide discounts of up to $30 per month for eligible households on the cost of internet services. It’s also basically gotten the major providers, that service the majority of people in the US, to sign on to a programme that brings down the cost of internet access to $30 or below, which in fact means that people eligible for these benefits don’t have to pay for internet access. The programme also enables Americans to afford or get digital devices for free or [at a] high discount.

In Germany, the internet’s become part of what they call the socio-cultural minimum level of subsistence. So an amount has been added to the subsistence minimum [benefits] to account for the costs.

Do you think there’s still a case for nationalising the internet in the UK?

Merten Reglitz: I think it really depends on what we want to achieve. With respect to the benefits, I think if we assume that we nationalise the infrastructure and data services, then there would be democratic control of a very essential service. And it might also make access cheaper for households than private companies, because the government doesn’t have to impose a profit motive.

There’s another point that might be positive. We could think of nationalisation as a way of imposing something like a digital toll – like some countries have a toll on using roads – for private companies. Think of all the money that big tech makes using the internet. If it was a nationally-owned infrastructure, then the government could charge those companies for using the services. Those are things that I see as possible upsides.

“Internet access is no good to people if it can be used against them, and against their human rights, because once they’re online they’re being spied upon, or they’re being manipulated... It’s not a question about do we have internet access, but what do we want our internet to be” – Merten Reglitz

What about the downsides?

Merten Reglitz: It’s a big burden on the public purse to, first of all, acquire all of this technology that is privately owned, and then to maintain it and develop it as well. If we think about household and government budgets, how strapped for cash to eat and provide for the NHS [they are], is this the priority that we should have? Does the current system not work efficiently enough? Or is it not controllable, democratically enough?

One of the biggest concerns I have is about privacy. If the broadband infrastructure and services were owned by the state, it would become a lot easier for the state to monitor what people do online. Think about Edward Snowden, his revelations about the NSA and GCHQ. They had to force private companies to cooperate with them, to get access to the servers and all that. If the government owned all of this, then it wouldn’t need to do that. It would have direct control, or there might be ways to make sure institutionally that this doesn’t happen. There’s a different level of danger involved, than if there’s a middleman.

The conversation about internet access is important in countries like the UK, but the inequality is obviously even worse on a global scale. How do you see the issue forming in developing nations?

Merten Reglitz: There’s a significant number of people that are still offline. The number reduced dramatically during the pandemic, but many people that are counted as being online are able to go online once every two months, or something like that, so the statistics are not as clear as they seem. The people that are still offline are the hardest to connect, because they live in rural areas, in poor societies, [and] there’s just not enough incentives for private companies to supply them with broadband infrastructure, or their national average income isn’t high enough for them to afford data. 

I think of internet access along the lines of four dimensions. One is the infrastructure, then you need the device, the data services, and the basic digital skills. And there are issues with all four dimensions in poor countries. For many of those people, all four are missing. You need to address all of those components in order to resolve the situation. At least initially, what will be needed is international aid.

There’s another side of this coin, which is equally important. I argue that we should have a human right to free internet access [...] but the supply side is only one side of the issue. The other thing that I mean by ‘free’, is free from arbitrary interference. I think in the long run, as coverage extends, that will become more important. Internet access is no good to people if it can be used against them, and against their human rights, because once they’re online they’re being spied upon, or they’re being manipulated.

It’s not a question about do we have internet access, but what do we want our internet to be. That’s something, in the long run, that will be decisive for whether the internet is going to be a force for good or not.

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