Should Internet access be a basic right in the Caribbean?

The question of whether Internet access should be a basic right has been a hotly debated topic over the last few years, especially since Internet access has become more integral to our daily lives. This post discusses this question within the context of the Caribbean.

With the increasing focus on ICT and specifically the Internet, countries have recognised the importance of ensuring that their citizens have access to the Internet. Some nations have taken it one step further and have established Internet access as a basic (or fundamental) right, along the lines of food, water and shelter. However, not all countries are prepared to go that route. We examine the position from both sides, and conclude with remarks with regard to the Caribbean.

Internet access is not a basic right

It is unlikely that any country would explicitly take the position that Internet access is not vital in today’s society, as computing and the Internet become increasingly essential in everyday life. Many countries are still grappling with providing their citizens with even more basic needs, such as electricity, water, health care, food and shelter. This tends to be the case where considerable portions of the population do not have access to reliable electricity or water, or where there is poor ancillary infrastructure, some of which would be required to support delivery of Internet service.

In some instances, especially where there is comprehensive access to basic services, Internet access, although considered important, still might not be established as a fundamental right. For example, in Jamaica, promoting ICTs has been recognised as a national priority, but in a recent editorial in the Jamaica Observer it was noted that the digital divide between Jamaica and the developed countries is widening. The newspaper was of the view that

[t]he real explanations are the failure to recognise the importance of ICT in economic development in a globalising world economy in which technological change is constant and rapid. The failure of recognition is both at the level of government and society.

Further, it must be emphasised that the availability of Internet access does not mean that every citizen would be, or has the means to be, connected to the Internet. There are a number of supporting resources that persons must possess, or must be supplied on their behalf. For example, in addition to Internet access, in order to get online a person would need (at the very least) to have a computing device and electricity to power that device, and possibly, other associated equipment. However, if persons are accessing the service at an Internet café or community centre, then transportation, secure housing, etc, must also be factored in.

Internet access is a basic right

There are a number of developed and developing countries around the world that consider Internet access a basic right. Finland was the first country on record in 2009, to establish 1 Mbps Internet access a fundamental right, but the list now includes France, Mexico, Estonia, Chile, Greece, Nigeria and South Korea, among others.

Those countries, to varying degrees, are still in the process of ensuring that other basic services are accessible to all of their citizens. Nevertheless, they have placed a priority on Internet access. Many, especially developing countries, recognise that they still need to be competitive in the international marketplace. Hence, they must align themselves with development and the direction in which the world is heading.

Additionally, some have taken to heart that under the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 19, already ensures the right to information:

Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.

When the declaration was drafted in 1948, the impact of the Internet on life today could not have been envisaged. However, Article 19 appears to have been drafted broadly enough to ensure, to the extent possible, freedom of expression, opinion and of information regardless of media and borders. Hence, many are prepared to argue that the right to Internet access is already protected.

Additionally, on 16 May 2011, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations released a report on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. In the report, the organisation was of the view that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation and against international law, which could be seen as further supporting the recognition of Internet as a fundamental right.

What should be the Caribbean’s position?

Regardless of which side of the argument you prefer, it is undeniable that the Internet is fundamentally changing all aspects of life and society. While we in the Caribbean are still grappling to ensure that basic services are provided to all citizens, we must also be prepared to better position ourselves to ensure our longer term viability.

Crucial to our survival will be the extent to which we can harness the Internet, and by extension ICTs. The Internet and technology in general are critical to improving efficiency and productiveness; and expectations of acceptable standards are changing across the board.  In that regard, there could be a strong argument that by establishing Internet access as a basic right in the Caribbean, the requisite attention and resources would be brought to bear to ensure comprehensive and timely deployment of much needed infrastructure.

However, although facilitating access to infrastructure might satisfy the right, it does not mean that the all of the benefits of Internet access will be automatically realised. The countries will still need to ensure that an enabling environment is created, where purposeful use of the Internet and of technology by government, businesses and individuals can be fostered and encouraged.