The global coronavirus pandemic has revealed how dangerously dependent we have become on Internet access.
The education system quickly shifted online in March. Telemedicine visits have replaced various health-care services. For many people, earning a living or running a business is contingent on e-commerce and Zoom meetings. And certain contact tracing protocols rely on cellphone data to track anyone who has been in the vicinity of a person infected with the coronavirus.
But not everyone has Internet access, and some people have much better access than others. In the face of a growing reliance on connectivity, the digital divide has prompted scholars to question more seriously the Internet’s importance and whether the ability to access it is a human right. Here’s what you need to know about this debate.
Is Internet access a human right?
Scholars who believe that Internet access is a human right have offered several concrete legal approaches based on existing international conventions and treaties. However, many of these claims may be a stretch in that they take existing legal protections for freedom of speech and attempt to expand them to cover Internet access, too. A more ambitious approach claims that rising levels of international support are creating “customary law” — a kind of tacit legal agreement between nations — that grants Internet access the status of a human right.
In opposition, key figures such as Vint Cerf, who co-wrote the basic technical protocols upon which the Internet is based, published a widely read op-ed in 2012 claiming that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself.” Skeptics suggest we must beware conflating the Internet with the freedoms it facilitates.
None of these approaches has gained broad support. People have begun instead to think about whether the Internet might be an “auxiliary human right” — a kind of secondary right that prevents fundamental rights from becoming useless. The right to free speech, for example, would be hollow without the right to a free press — an auxiliary right. Adopting this approach would emphasize how Internet access has become symbiotically intertwined with basic rights such as freedom of speech, the right to education and more. This interpretation is especially apt in the wake of the pandemic, when nondigital forms of communication and action are riskier or more costly.
Now there is data to support this argument
However, claims that the Internet is an auxiliary human right depend on an empirical claim — that people are unable to exercise their fundamental rights without using the Internet. To test this argument, a team of political scientists at the University of Haifa conducted a controlled experiment to quantify the relationship between Internet connectivity and the ability to participate in civic life.
This experiment, the first in a planned wave of Internet deprivation studies, focused on three areas of civic life — political speech, political association and access to political information. Unsuspecting participants were invited to join a scavenger hunt with a twist. Half of the participants were in the control group and were free to use all resources at their disposal, while the other half, closely monitored, were denied any access to the Internet. Their assignment was to complete tasks that reflect basic civic functions.
In one task, we instructed participants to find out which member of Congress submitted a particular legislative bill. In another, participants were asked to express themselves on a political topic to a wide public audience. These instructions were intentionally vague — participants just needed to find a way to complete the tasks.
In a credit to human ingenuity, several participants without Internet access found creative responses to the challenge. They stood on library tables to deliver lectures and scribbled slogans on the wall. Yet for every singular success, there were many more failures, with Internet-deprived participants exhibiting mounting frustration at their perceived helplessness. Fully 100 percent of control-group subjects used the Internet to complete their tasks (because why wouldn’t you?), with 89 percent of this group succeeding.
In contrast, those in the Internet-deprived group were stymied, with less than half achieving a passing grade and only 12 percent successfully completing all tasks. Controlling for a wide range of demographic and technological variables, Internet access proved to be the single factor that best predicted task completion — more than education, age or technological proficiency.
This dependence has consequences for politics
Many of the basic civic rights we take for granted are now inextricably linked with Internet access. The process of social digitization didn’t begin with the pandemic, but the coronavirus has fast-tracked the shift. For example, the virus has accelerated the shuttering of print newspapers throughout the world, so people without Internet access cannot access the political information that forms the cornerstone of a thriving democracy. Likewise, voter registration during the pandemic has plummeted throughout the United States, but the drop-off would be worse without the ability to register online.
This overwhelming dependence — captured now in both controlled environments and in the real world — is concerning since it is accompanied by a growing vulnerability to disconnection. One in 4 Americans lacks home access to high-speed Internet service, either because it is too expensive or because they live outside urban centers.
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored this vulnerability, with reports of families congregating in parking lots to search for WiFi. We can still debate whether people should have a right to Internet access, but there is solid evidence that it is challenging to exercise basic civic tasks without it.
Ryan Shandler is a research fellow at the Center for Cyber Law and Policy, an inaugural fellow in the Idit Doctoral Program, and is completing his PhD at the University of Haifa School of Political Sciences.