A map of world internet access in 2007, via Flickr
As decreed by the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights, human beings have the right to free expression, to culture, to equality, to life, liberty, and security. Do we need to add one more—the right to internet?
The prevailing sentiment is that without access to the web it's increasingly hard to exercise these basic freedoms—making connectivity itself a right by extension. Considering that two-thirds of the world isn't online, that would mean a big chunk of the population is being denied their basic rights, which is one of the reasons so many tech heavyweights, governments, and nonprofits are determined to bridge the digital divide.
The latest digital missionary is Facebook, which just announced Internet.org, an initiative to bring internet to 'the next 5 billion people," by making it more affordable for developing countries to access the web through smartphones.
In a white paper timed with the announcement, Mark Zuckerberg admitted it was good business sense, but stressed the altruism of the project. He wrote that he believes connectivity is a human right, and making it happen "is one of the greatest challenges of our generation."
Zuck isn't alone in the quest. For one, Facebook is partnering with a half a dozen tech companies—Nokia, Ericsson, Qualcomm, and Samsung—to put Internet.org into action. The approach is to cut the cost of mobile data—which in most countries is more expensive than the smartphone itself—by making apps, smartphones, and internet networks more efficient, and to come up with new business models for phone companies, so they can deliver services for no or low cost.
Others are tackling the same problem from different angles. Google is trying to wire the globe with Project Loon, filling the world's internet gaps with a network of balloons. The Internet Society and the germanely named A Human Right are nonprofits that have long worked to spread connectivity throughout society.
In the US, the FCC recently called for a nationwide "super wi-fi" network that was free to the public. Just today, Atlantic Cities wrote about a persistent proposal to build a National Internet System as a part of the National Highway System—a logical infrastructure to expand the network nationwide, since 90 percent of the country lives five miles from a national highway. "The economic boost could be gigantic," it wrote. "Private service provider competition would increase, especially in major cities; small businesses could count on fast and reliable access at a fair price; the telecommunications network in general would become more secure and robust."
In today's knowledge economy, people and nations need access to the global web to have a fair shot of economic competition. From Zuck's white paper:
In a detailed analysis, McKinsey has shown that the internet now accounts for a larger percent of GDP in many developed countries than agriculture and energy. It has also accounted for 21 percent of GDP growth in developed countries in the past ﬁve years, increasing rapidly from just 10 percent over the past 15 years. About 75 percent of the gains are experienced by companies outside of the technology industry. And the internet creates jobs, with 2.6 new jobs being created for every job lost to gained eﬃciencies.
The internet's impact on GDP as off 2011, via Facebook
According to A Human Right, increasing internet access worldwide by just 10 percent can boost the GDP of developing countries up to 2.5 percent.
But does that make it a human right? Back to the UN Declaration:
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
There's an argument to be made that the right to a certain standard of living is interwoven with connectivity. Amnesty International made that very argument, writing that as the web is increasingly necessary to enjoy freedoms like health, education, employment, the arts, and gender equality, which "means that Information Technologies (yes, the Internet) are inseparable from the rights themselves."
And not just the economy—the Declaration also lays out "the right to freedom of opinion and expression," and to "receive and impart information and ideas through any media regardless of frontiers." In a separate section, it lays out "the right to freely participate in the culture life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its beliefs."
Amnesty argues that technology is transforming society so completely, it's forcing the notion of "a human right" to evolve. The UN even released a special report on how important the internet is, "not only to enable individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, but also a range of other human rights, and promote the progress of society as a whole."
Curiously, the strongest argument against connectivity as a human right comes from Vint Cert—curious because he sort of invented the internet. Last year, in the midst of the Arab Spring and social media-enabled revolutions, Cerf wrote in an op-ed in the New York Times that internet access enabled basic human rights but wasn't itself one.
"There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right," he wrote. "The best way to characterize human rights is to identify the outcomes that we are trying to ensure...Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives."
Increasingly, it looks like one of those things we human need to ensure a healthy, meaningful life is the internet.