In July 2016, the United Nations declared access to the Internet to be a human right. During the coronavirus pandemic, it has become even clearer that access to the Internet and digital technologies can be a lifesaver for many people around the world. Health related information can reduce the spread of the virus and save lives, while many online services can help us to live normally when our movements are restricted. Governments and telecommunication and Internet service providers (telcos and ISPs) must do everything they can to guarantee and enable people’s access to the Internet, in full compliance with international standards.
Access to the Internet and digital technologies has become essential for most of us in our everyday lives. Technology enables us to work, shop, communicate and access important services. Increasingly, technology is a key enabler for the exercise and enjoyment of many human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and information.
During a public health emergency, access to the internet becomes even more of an essential tool for protecting our health as well as a range of human rights, including our social and economic rights while our everyday movements are restricted. A lack of access to the Internet significantly impacts people’s lives during this time. The Internet enables us to receive and share vital information about the pandemic and the measures being put in place to tackle it. It helps us to understand and scrutinise our governments’ actions. And with approximately 20% of the world’s population social distancing or living under quarantine conditions, technology helps us to work, shop and communicate. A number of daily activities have shifted online, ranging from the provision of health services to education programmes that enable home schooling.
A lack of adequate infrastructure or connectivity usually leaves behind the poorest communities, and the digital divide shows its discriminatory effects in all its strength.
Lack of access to the Internet during the coronavirus pandemic can be a result of:
- Government shutdowns: In some countries, the population is arbitrarily kept offline by government measures that shut down the Internet. For example, since 2019, the Bangladesh government has claimed security concerns justify the shutdown of mobile internet connection in Rohingya refugee camps. Similarly, in Myanmar, the Government has imposed Internet shutdowns in nine townships of Rakhine and Chin. In Kashmir and Jammu Internet slowdowns are obstructing timely access to information about the virus to parts of India’s population.
- Poor digital infrastructure: A lack of sufficiently developed digital infrastructure can leave people unconnected or unable to use services that require a high-quality internet connection. This is particularly the case in developing countries that usually have less developed fixed infrastructure. However, the existence and availability of adequate infrastructure can also vary substantially within a region or country. For example, in the USA, while the vast majority of households in urban areas have access to high-speed broadband, roughly 27% of rural Americans lack access to it. Even in well-connected areas, a high-speed connection may not be affordable for a large number of people with low income. In Italy, one of the countries most affected by the coronavirus pandemic, about 30% of the population does not have high-speed broadband due to the existing infrastructure.
- Exclusion of some communities: Some communities have been historically excluded from access to the Internet and digital technologies. In Mexico, the indigenous and peasant communities that make up almost 25% of the population face obstacles in accessing the Internet. These include not only the lack of Internet infrastructure but also economic, social and cultural limitations. Displaced communities such as those in refugees’ camps, usually struggle to have adequate access to all essential services, from water to electricity, and therefore to the Internet too.
Role of States, telcos and ISPs
In these circumstances, it is essential that States, telecos and ISPs put in place various measures to ensure that people have functional connectivity and access to the Internet.
Some governments and companies are already moving in this direction. For instance, in the USA, a number of ISPs have waived data caps to accommodate people’s new needs for working and learning from home. In Uruguay, ANTEL (the state telecommunications company), announced on 24 March that in April, 120,000 houses will be benefited with free 50Gb to navigate and work from home. This was in response to the Government’s instructions to prioritise this work programme. In El Salvador, a presidential decree ordered the suspension of payments related to Internet and electricity for three months; however, the criteria to receive this benefit is unclear and there have been ambiguous orders that those who can continue paying should do so. In Colombia, the Government issued a decree that recognises telecommunications services as essential and establishes that their provision cannot be suspended for lack of payment. A similar provision has been issued by the Peruvian telecoms authority, OSIPTEL, for as long as the emergency status persists. The South Africa’s telecommunication regulator has requested mobile operators and pay-TV providers make their services free for the duration of the coronavirus emergency. The International Telecommunication Union has announced the setting of a new platform to assist governments and the private sector in ensuring that networks are kept resilient and telecommunication services are available to all.
ARTICLE 19 calls on States to adopt comprehensive measures that ensure people’s access to health related information and protect freedom of expression during the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, they should take a human rights approach to access to the Internet and digital technologies. Governments should support and improve telcos and ISPs in improving access to the Internet without discrimination. They should refrain from restrictions to access to the Internet and connectivity, such as special social media taxes or similar measures, and from imposing Internet shutdowns. States must also recognise that marginalised groups are disproportionately affected by a lack of access to the Internet, particularly when most countries’ communication strategy during the pandemic is online centred. They need to adopt a variety of methods to share critical information, and support community-based communicative models that may be the only source of information for some communities. They should ensure that information can be delivered in a timely way to all, including to people in areas where Internet and electricity infrastructure are lacking.
The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted how essential access to the internet and digital technologies are to all communities, irrespective of economic, political, social or geographical circumstances. Today more than ever, it is clear that wide availability of Internet infrastructure and services, delivered without discrimination, is fundamental for resilient and strong societies.