Defend Truth


Sacrificing the ‘human’ in Internet as a human right


Khadija Patel pushes words on street corners. She is passionate about the protection and enhancement of global media as a public good and is the head of programmes at the International Fund for Public Interest Media. She is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian in South Africa, a co-founder of the youth-driven, award-winning digital news startup The Daily Vox and a vice-chairperson of the Vienna-based International Press Institute. As a journalist she has produced work for Sky News, Al Jazeera, The Guardian, Quartz, City Press and Daily Maverick, among others. She is also a research associate at WISER (Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research at the University of Witwatersrand). 

A cantankerous broadband connection has become as catastrophic to modern life as a power outage. This version of modern life has largely been the bastion of the privileged so far, but the Internet access is now declared a human right - as fundamental to life as shelter, food and water.

You see, according to the report from the appropriately important sounding “Special Rapporteur” Frank La Rue, not only has the Internet given us Justin Bieber, Friday and Wienergate, it has also become “an indispensable tool for realising a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress”.  The “Arab Spring”, according to the report, has demonstrated that access to the Internet is especially important during times of political unrest.  There’s little doubt the Internet presents a major headache for governments, not least the South African one. Already struggling to learn the  steps to the awkward dance between privacy and censorship, “ensuring universal access to the Internet” is now  required  to be a “priority for all states”. 

Social progress has for some time been gauged through a measure of “Internet penetration” . The Internet Access in South Africa 2010 study revealed the number of South Africans accessing the Internet via broadband connections had grown by more than 50% in one year – a direct consequence, it felt, of the growing need for round-the-clock connectivity. But even as South Africa continues to make gains with newer research indicating 39% of urban South Africans and 27% of rural users now browse the Internet on their phones, South Africa’s 6,8 million Internet users translate to a paltry 13.8% of the total population. While La Rue acknowledges some nations simply can’t engage the Internet as the “revolutionary” and “interactive medium” it’s proven itself to be,  all nations are now required to make plans to offer universal access. A tool in the promotion of democracy and a point of access to a staggering amount of information, for many the Internet is the only window to the outside world they will ever be afforded. It is quite rightly a basic human right. An accelerated campaign for further Internet penetration that emphasises growing connectivity in isolation will come at the cost of realising an underlying human agency.

The role of technology has been severely overstated in the success of the democratic uprisings spanning North Africa and the Arabian Gulf. It is a blight on common sense that the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions are still referred to as “Facebook revolutions” despite all evidence to the contrary. The Internet, through its applications in social media did indeed have a role to play in the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, as La Rue points out, “The recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilising the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights”.

The success of political uprisings have always centred around the ability to mobilise, and in the Internet users have a tool unparalleled in its reach, but at the Personal Democracy Forum in New York this week, one of the Egypt’s most influential bloggers Alaa Abd Al Fattah argued that universities, factories and places of worship, not Twitter or Facebook were the most influential social networks to the Egyptian uprising. abd Al Fattah explains the role of the Internet as a force in “building a single narrative” that spurs on the revolution.

Writing immediately after the Internet was “turned back on” in Egypt in early February, another blogger, Haisam Abu-Samrah wrote: “Ten days ago, I was re-tweeting anti-Mubarak sentiments and signing up for his tongue-in-cheek Farewell Party event on Facebook. I had no idea that the ideas expressed on these sites would ignite a whole country and lead all hell to break loose[sic]. Make no mistake: Facebook and Twitter helped connect thousands of frustrated Egyptians and united them under the single goal of overthrowing the regime. By underestimating a bunch of privileged, opinionated and fed-up vanguards, the Egyptian regime overlooked their impact on the rest of the people, and didn’t guess that crowds of middle- and lower-class Egyptians would follow their lead and unshackle the system’s long, strong grip.”
Egypt enjoys an Internet penetration rate of only 21.2 %, a greater rate of penetration than most African states, but ultimately it was people and not the Internet that drove social change.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, astounded his Australian audience this week when he said, “Every time we create new technology we’re creating stuff to do the work we used to do and we’re making ourselves less meaningful, less relevant.”  For every technology we develop in an attempt to improve life, we find life impoverished in some way and, in the case of the Internet, in societies that have achieved hyper-connectivity,  humanity, the conscious experience of self is fast being consumed by a mindless automation driven by the singular ambition of increased connectivity. The problem, of course, is not the Internet. It is our relationship with the Internet that must be scrutinised if Internet is to be a human right.

Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, when he addressed graduates at the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 persuasively urged his audience to get off the Internet. “Turn off your computer,” he said, “You’re actually going to have to turn off your phone and discover all that is human around us.”  A relentless drive towards increased Internet accessibility will obscure what it means to be human, it will force us into being cogs in the great machine of the Internet if we do not first engage the many other human rights millions of people already go without.

In the UN report La Rue confesses that, “Given that access to basic commodities such as electricity remains difficult in many developing states, the special rapporteur is acutely aware that universal access to the Internet for all individuals worldwide cannot be achieved instantly.” La Rue adds: “The special rapporteur reminds all states of their positive obligation to promote or to facilitate the enjoyment of the right to freedom of expression and the means necessary to exercise this right, including the Internet”. But in a world where nearly one billion go without food every day, do we really need to know more than we need to eat? DM


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