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When Internet access becomes a human right

The world scoffed, in the early years of this century, when institutions of state in countries like Estonia, Finland and France declared declared Internet access to be a basic human right. Then, in 2016, the Human Rights Council of the United Nations General Assembly noted that the Internet was a catalyst for the right to freedom of expression. This was deeply ironic, given that body’s highly selective approach to human rights violations among member states. Nevertheless, the statement struck a chord.

A year later, a campaign for similar recognition was launched in South Africa by the Interactive Advertising Bureau of SA, along with the SA National Editors’ Forum, Media Monitoring Africa, the Association for Progressive Communications and Applied Law and Technology.

The SA Human Rights Commission gave the campaign tacit backing, but that has not translated into government support. The closest we have come is the requirement announced by the Competition Commission in December 2019 that all mobile network operators had to provide a daily quota of free data to all customers. That obligation was watered down, in the recent agreement between Vodacom and the Competition Commission, to zero-rating educational, health, government and information sites. In other words, free access to a pre-defined list of sites.

That’s a start but, as we have seen, utterly inadequate in the face of a national lockdown. Access to information is one thing; access to the tools of maintaining a semblance of normal life altogether different.

The penny is slowly dropping, though. Following a call by the Federal Communications Commission in the USA to “keep America connected”, the local equivalent followed suit.The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) called on service providers “to ensure that they make communication services available to all South Africans”.

It warned of an “expected surge in usage of data as the majority of South Africans across all sectors have no option but work from home, learn from home and carry on their day to day life activities from home through technological means”.

It said this would result in “a spike in data usage, particularly as consumers also access information with regards to the pandemic”.

It did not go as far as to invoke human rights, but acting chairperson Dr Keabetswe Modimoeng did announce “regulatory concessions or relaxations to enable the sector to meet the demands of the business unusual environment occasioned by the pandemic”.

The most dramatic of these concessions, almost hidden as an afterthought, was the opening of “TV whitespaces”, the unused broadcasting frequencies between TV channels. These are ideal for low-cost Internet data access in rural areas. Despite being piloted for years by the likes of Google and Microsoft, they have never been licensed.

Arguably, this is because government has long seen Internet access as the province of the privileged. Only as a result of an unprecedented crisis has it woken up to the importance of Internet access for all.

As a result, “in order to ensure that rural and marginalised communities are also catered for during this period”, it has called on service providers who meet “certification requirements” to use this spectrum for affordable or free access to rural consumers.

Now can we accept that the Internet is a basic human right?

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