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This paper is part of a series of policy briefs on the mobile internet from a human rights perspective

The evolution and spread of the mobile internet presents exciting new opportunities for the effective implementation of human rights. It can expand people’s capacities to create and share information and ideas and is allowing to improve access to the internet for people who cannot afford or do not have physical connections to the fixed-line internet. It is also making citizen-driven communication more powerful through providing instant and portable connectivity so that people can access and upload information whenever and wherever they need to.

However, the mobile internet will not necessarily provide a straightforward or unproblematic solution to problems of digital and political exclusion. If we are to foster the evolution of a universally empowering mobile internet, we will need to address a number of significant challenges relating to affordability, usability, relevant content, network and applications architecture, inequality and identity.

The internet and the content that it hosts need to be conceived of as public goods that are necessary for human rights, active citizenship and empowerment. Recognition of the importance of user generated, locally relevant content needs to be incorporated into models of support for, and regulation of, both ICT infrastructure and media content. Whilst an increasing number of countries have ICT development strategies in place, these often focus on expanding access to technology and do not pay adequate consideration to issues around usability, active citizenship, culture and rights.

There is a need for much more awareness and consideration of the fact that the vast majority of the world’s internet users will soon be accessing the internet either solely or primarily via mobile phones. For most, the mobile internet will be their first experience of the internet. It is therefore crucial to ensure as far as possible that the mobile internet has as much empowering potential as its fixed line and desktop computer counterparts. This means that people should be able to access the same tools and services via mobile phones as they can via fixed and computer connections, and have the same capacities and tools to create and share content. The characteristics of the fixed-line internet that have enabled it to grow into such a powerful medium for freedom of expression need to be protected in the mobile world, including principles of openness, interoperability and opportunities for user-driven innovation.

Whilst an increasing proportion of the world’s internet users are mobile-only or mobile-primary, some of the most exciting examples of the mobile internet helping to empower citizens come from cases in which it is operating in synergy with other communications media. Moreover, whilst taking steps to ensure that the mobile internet is as empowering as fixed line and computer connections is important, mobile handsets have technological limitations in comparison to desktop computers and fixed-line connectivity. Computers currently have better data storage capacity and more powerful data processing, possess bigger screens and better support for programming. At present, fixed-line broadband connections tend to be faster and more reliable, capable of handling much greater volumes of traffic.

Whilst the mobile internet may help to overcome connectivity gaps in the short term, focus on mobile internet access must not undermine efforts to achieve universal access to desktop computers and advanced fixed-line fibre optic networks. Mobile, computer and fixed-line access must be thought of as mutually compatible and synergistic technologies, to which all people should have access. The end goal should be the establishment of an interconnected global communications environment. Within this, all people should have equal and meaningful opportunities to use and appropriate communications media to meet their own needs, advance their livelihoods, exercise their rights and participate in public life.

Photo by jtstrathdee. Used with permission under Creative Commons licence 2.0