Internet access and the right to communicate

In recent months we have seen the notion of “Internet as a Human right” become quite controversial.

On the one hand we see folk like Vint Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol maintain that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself”. This is a perfectly reasonable position as is the other side where luminaries such as web inventor Tim Berners-Lee assert that “Access to the Web is now a human right”.

While both positions are viable, I don’t see them as mutually exclusive. Article 19 of The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) says, inter alia:

“Everyone shall have the right to freedom of expression; this right shall include freedom to seek, receive and impart information and ideas of all kinds, regardless of frontiers, either orally, in writing or in print, in the form of art, or through any other media of his choice.”

Clearly this includes the Internet as a “media of choice”, so we already have the right to use the Internet as part of the right to communicate. While this is useful as an instrument of international policy, humans also have the right to safe drinking water and sanitation, but many around the world do not yet enjoy this basic right. Making a UN Declaration that we have the right to Internet access won’t make it so. I wish it could.

Instead of spending time and energy on this debate, I would rather see African ICT policy makers and regulators spend that time and energy (and money) on creating a truly enabling environment for spreading the network to the vast majority of places that do not as yet have Internet access. As some of my colleagues have noted in recent days on this blog, access is still the biggest challenge across Africa, despite the enormous strides in mobile Internet that have been made in recent years.

With the challenge of creating an enabling environment comes opportunities for creating a connected 21st century Africa. These opportunities come in the form of new and innovative ways to manage and use spectrum, in innovative lightweight regulatory regimes, in the sharing of masts and other telecoms infrastructure by multiple providers, in the use of renewal, sustainable energy sources to power telecoms infrastructure and in the rise of new devices and applications (think mMoney) designed to make our lives easier and speed development.

All of these innovative new ways of thinking (and doing) will be disruptive to entrenched economic and political interests, yet they must be embraced if we are to have the Information Society that will allow all Africans to enjoy the right to communicate using the Internet.