For many of us, this ascendence of the web in our consciousness has made the technology indispensable.
Universal internet access is the new human rights issue
Two decades after its inception, the internet is celebrated as the most powerful force of human development in recorded history. And for many of us, this ascendence of the web in our consciousness has made the technology indispensable. Last week, a global BBC survey of 27,000 adults gave rather compelling evidence about how we relate to the web: four out of five respondents viewed internet access as a human right. Idealistically, viewing this technology as a human right gives it a measure of morality that we need to address human concerns. But from a realistic perspective, equitable use of the internet will not be realised only through moral debates, but rather through the evolution of political and economic choices. This is exactly what we have come to learn (the hard way, unfortunately) from six decades of frustrating global debates on "the right to communicate". There are several milestones in international discussions of communication rights. The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) adopted by the UN General Assembly, the French humanist Jean d'Arcy's articulation of the right to communicate in 1969, and the 2003 World Summit on the Information Society all had significant moral messages. However, since all of these discussions were based on abstractions that were no match for harsh global realities, their effect on real-world media practices was rather limited. At the height of the Cold War, there was a broad consensus on the UDHR's provision that "everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression", as part of the debate between the so-called First and Second Worlds. But when Third World nations in the 1970s and 1980s pushed for equal opportunities to communicate their national and cultural concerns, they were obstructed by ideological and political divisions. Of course, the right to communicate has been an incredibly popular idea among egalitarian media activists and researchers who envision a democratisation of the media. Two decades ago I wrote a research paper about media access in the Third World which helped to generate interest and galvanised a conference on the broad issue of communication rights. The frustrating lesson from that experience was that calling for people's access to the mass media channels was one thing, but actually making it happen was another. Nowadays, it is heartening to see global debates on the right to communicate trickle into policy decisions affecting how the internet is used. In some countries, including Estonia, France, Finland and Greece, internet access has already been recognised as a human right. In the UK, a digital economy bill may become law as soon as April. The legislation calls for broadband access to be provided to every household in the nation by 2012, but not without strings attached. The regulators would have new powers to disconnect or slow down connections of persistent illegal file-sharers. Other countries, like France, are reportedly considering similar laws. At another level, the European Union has adopted an internet freedom provision stating that any measures taken by member states affecting citizens' access to or use of the internet "must respect the fundamental rights and freedoms of citizens". International bodies such as the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) are also pushing for universal internet access schemes through good governance mechanisms. Around the world, however, these notes of optimism are overshadowed by agonising disparities in the access to the internet. Recent data released by the ITU reveals very alarming facts about telecommunications worldwide. There are significant differences between fixed and mobile telephony services available in different regions. But it is the dismal reality of internet availability that reveals the global digital divide at its worst. The highest-ranked nations in terms of internet diffusion rates are almost all in the northern hemisphere, while the least-wired are all poor countries in Asia and Africa. Among the 57 intermediately-wired nations, I was glad to see some countries in this region like Bahrain, Kuwait, Lebanon, Qatar and the UAE. Sadly, however, a good number of Arab countries including Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Libya, Oman, Sudan, Syria and Yemen (as well as the Palestinian Territories) are classified among nations with the lowest internet penetration levels. The BBC survey respondents who viewed internet access as a human right encourage many of us who wish to see this technology become more humanised. But in a world driven by political and economic interests, global initiatives over the last 60 years have failed to translate the right to communicate into more equitable access to the media. The moral priorities of internet access need to be recognised. But dwelling on that aspect can obscure the real issues that define whether we can access the web, and how we fare in its vast cyberspace. Moral rhetoric aside, political and economic changes are needed to foster more equitable internet access. Muhammad Ayish is a professor of communications at the University of Sharjah