Should the Internet be a basic right now, or in the future?

In light of recent statements on the Internet by a prominent Caribbean leader, we discuss reasons why the Internet should be made a basic right sooner rather than later.


In an address to the Jamaica Employers Federation two weeks ago, Prime Minister of Jamaica, Andrew Holness, was reported as saying that globally, it could be another 10 to 15 years before access to the Internet is considered a basic human right. He further noted, “
this is so because transactions are going to be moved mainly towards a digital platform” (Source:  The Nation)

During his speech, the Prime Minister highlighted a few situations in which government services and transactions in Jamaica were not being done digitally, and the need for the State to drive the requisite efforts to implement digital systems. However, while the Prime Minister’s sought to frame himself as being prepared to lead the charge, he seemed to be out of touch with the importance of the Internet, and the current state of play in the world today. Below, four key points are discussed.

1. We are already in the digital age, the Internet age

From all reports on Mr. Holness’ speech, there is a sense that the digital age is still to come. However, the digital age began with the availability of personal computers in the 1970s. Since that time, the cost of computing  devices have decreases considerably, whilst their processing power and sophistication have increased exponentially. Hence today, individuals owning, or at the very least having access to a computing device is the norm.

Further, the digital age is also widely recognised as the onset of the information age, which was bolstered considerably by the development of the world wide web in the late 1980s. We are nearly 30 years into having Internet access as we know it, which has been driving innovation and also transforming the way we live and work. Suffice it to say, we are already neck-deep into the digital age and so we, in the Caribbean, should be more concerned about not falling even more behind that we already are.

2.  The Internet is already critical to competitiveness

For Caribbean countries, and those that are heavily dependent on foreign direct investment, an essential criteria for favorable consideration has been the cost and availability of telecoms services. Historically, the assessment was limited to fixed-line telephony, with a particular emphasis on international calling. More recently, the focus has switched to the Internet – the cost of service, the plans, technology, bandwidth and transmission speeds available, the overall quality and reliability of the service, to name a few. Further, a number of global location assessment exercises, such as those examining country competitiveness, business readiness, or with respect to particular services and industries, such as offshore outsourcing, all place an  emphasis on the Internet, for example with respect to cost, availability, and use by businesses, government, and citizens.

Additionally, in country, the Internet is driving innovation and organisational efficiency to make businesses even more competitive. In that vein and increasingly, governments worldwide are implementing electronic (e-) government, to optimise their systems and resources. According to the latest e-government survey conducted by the United Nations, countries such as Barbados, Antigua and Barbuda, and Grenada were the top ranked in the Caribbean, whilst Jamaica was considerably lower down on the list. Nevertheless, there is considerable room for more efficient engagement within governments in the region, and with respect to the delivery of services to its external customers.

3.  We need to future-proof our population

Leading from the two previous points, especially in light of all of the calls by policymakers across the region, over the past 20 years or so, to ensure that our students are ready for the jobs of tomorrow, the Internet will continue to be an essential tool. In that regard, it is crucial that the requisite investment is made in the Internet – not only its infrastructure, but also in creating the enabling environment for it to be more fully harnessed and to drive our countries’ economic and social development.

Part of the investment needed is to have the Internet and Internet access an essential requirement in today’s society – similar to having access to electricity, adequate housing and potable water. Today, there is still the impression that Internet access is a luxury service: everyone should not be able to afford it. However, if that is the case, then large segments of the population that are towards the base of the socio-economic pyramid will continue to be marginalised and will not be as prepared as they should be for today’s world and that which is evolving.

4.  Universal Access / Service can support needed projects

The general premise the concept of Universal Access (UA) and Universal Service (US) in telecoms is to support comprehensive access to and the availability of select telecoms services in a particular country. In the Caribbean and the early 2000s, when new telecoms legislation  were being drafted, the focus for UA and US generally was on fixed-line telephony (voice) service. However, policy makers and regulators quickly realised that with the introduction of low-cost mobile service, the game had changed. Voice services no longer required that support; the attention should instead be directed at data, the Internet.

In the ensuing years, UA/US Funds have financed a number of the Internet-related initiatives, for example, getting Internet to  schools, in post offices, health centres, community centres, and even outfitting providing computing devices to schools and even to students. To varying degrees across the region, criticisms have been levelled against the UA/US mechanisms that have been established, as significant sums have been collected from the industry, but too few projects are being implemented, relative to the monies that have been collected.

Summary

In summary, and as the above four points should emphasise, the Internet is already integral to our everyday lives – whether we realise it or not. Although Caribbean policymakers have long recognised the importance of the Internet to drive development, the statements by Prime Minister Holness tend to suggest either the assertions that have been made are not clearly understood, or at worse, they might have just been lip service.

A declaration of the Internet as a basic right, by countries in the region, would eliminate any doubt of its importance. It would most likely spur a policy shift across government and sectors, and foster projects to achieve the goals and targets established. Further, those projects and initiatives could be financed by the UA and US mechanisms that already are in place, and supported by international agencies (as needed), once a clear position has been established.

 

Image credit:  David Castillo Dominici (FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

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