As a quarter of the world’s population sit at home, our only way of staying connected with family, friends and collegues is through the internet. Imagine a world where we would be social distancing without having virtual access to information or communicating with others. Where we cannot see our loved one’s faces through video calls, where businesses cannot operate at all and where students could no longer pursue their education. The reality is, some people are in such a situation where they have no access to the internet. Therefore, addressing the inequalities of online access has now gained importance more than ever before.
Ever since internet usage exploded in 1995, it has changed simple day-to-day tasks, such as sending emails instead of letters through the mail. Over the last couple of decades, the internet has evolved and expanded, allowing the digitalization of some sectors such as banking and the creation of new ones such as content creation on social media.
Despite the internet’s role in changing our lives, we have taken it for granted. The corona crisis has proven just how necessary the internet has become in keeping the world moving and connected. In the past few months, we have become more dependent on the internet, spending even more hours in front of our screens, completing various tasks ranging from work to entertainment. Our workspaces have been replaced with online environments, going out with friends has been replaced with Zoom or Houseparty calls, and even groceries are being bought through online applications. This increased time spent on the internet leads me back to a debate raised by the UN a few years ago; should internet access be considered a human right? Here is why it should be.
In 2016, the UN Human Rights Council declared that internet access is a basic human right as it is necessary to ensure that individuals can “exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression”. If you are reading this article, then you have the luxury of finding it normal to browse the web and scroll through your Instagram feed. However, according to the UN, around 44% of the world’s population still don’t have any access to the internet. Therefore, we are at an advantage where we have access to information and opportunities from all around the world while others are deprived from internet access either due to its price or for not being aware of its existence to begin with.
To emphasize the importance of online access during the corona crisis, according to the Human Rights Watch, the internet currently provides crucial information on how to stay safe during the pandemic. The organization condemns internet shutdowns by governments as they can be deadly in a health crisis. Furthermore, while staying at home, the internet is an important outlet to stay connected in case of an emergency or for performing tasks that would usually take place through physical interaction. Not to mention that online support services are essential for individuals struggling with mental illnesses or facing domestic or verbal abuse. There is also a significant economic cost when businesses in sectors that have could be digitalized are deprived of online access. This could result in higher unemployment rates, lower productivity and greater inequality within societies.
Consequently, online access has enabled us to pursue a more mobile way of life in these difficult times, giving people the chance to continue working and studying from home without being constantly on the run. The internet is currently our best option in maintaining some sort of normalcy and keeping our economies afloat as best as possible. Furthermore, it could be a great equalizer to help overcome poverty and bridge inequalities by providing access to an education or job opportunities. Although the debate around online access has always been important, the corona crisis is a wakeup call to demand governments to take action and make access to the internet available to all.