The COVID-19 crisis has exposed the ugly consequences of digital inequities around the world. The most privileged can continue to work, support their families and engage in society, using online tools as a digital lifeboat. Meanwhile, those with limited or no access are left adrift. The devastating results illustrate that the definition of internet access as a human right has to be expanded to include universal access to reliable and affordable high-speed internet.
In the months since much of the world shut down in response to COVID-19, leaders at all levels have been touting the ways digital technology has been used to save lives, flatten the curve, provide vital information, connect communities, and restore the economy. We’ve all heard that the pandemic has made telemedicine the “new normal;” that “edtech” and remote learning are transforming education; and that telework is not only key to our economic recovery but could also prove to be so productive that it might be the future of work.
But, while we lament our “first-world problem” of Zoom fatigue, large numbers of people around the world are denied these digital lifeboats. This pandemic has made it clear that not only is internet access a human right, but also that just basic access is not enough. Without universal, reliable, and affordable high-speed internet, the majority of the world will be increasingly excluded from economic, social, and political life.
The reality is that many internet users experience an internet that is too slow and unreliable to meaningfully participate in society or access social services. In the United States, 20 percent of rural students lack access to broadband at home, and 43 percent of parents from lower-income households nationwide report that their children have to do their schoolwork on a cellphone. In Jammu and Kashmir, where high-speed internet has been banned by the Indian government as a method to control the previously semi-autonomous region, 2G internet speeds undermine doctors’ efforts to test and treat patients. And with only 5 percent of people in least developed countries (LDCs) using the internet to purchase goods and services, the digital economy in these countries offers little opportunity for many workers and businesses.
Governments pay lip service to closing the digital divide
For far too long, access to the internet has been treated by governments and policymakers as a luxury, secondary to other more essential development goals such as access to medical care, education, and economic development. Governments have frequently paid lip service to closing the digital divide and signed on to lofty goals about attaining global universal access, and in 2016 the UN’s Human Rights Council issued a non-binding resolution arguing that access to the internet is a basic human right. However, there has been little meaningful progress or real investment to address digital inequities and to substantively improve connectivity around the world.
Part of the problem is how the gap is measured. Internet access is often defined as having basic connectivity. According to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), 54 percent of the world is connected, and efforts towards connecting the remaining 46 percent often focus on mobile-centric policies and programs. However, a closer look at those numbers and at who is considered “connected” shows significant differences in what internet access actually means. The ITU defines an internet user as someone who has used the internet “from any location in the last three months” regardless of the kind of device or network. This broad definition obscures the inequities that exist between those who have access to an internet and those who can meaningfully use the internet for economic and human development.
A better way to understand the everyday digital experiences of internet users around the world and the nuances of digital inequities is to analyze relative “communication capacities” based on the computing power and bandwidth that individual users are able to deploy depending on their context, resources and capabilities. This framework lets us understand the diverse factors that impact an internet user’s experience and points of failure in translating this access to effective use. These factors include:
- Device used to access the internet
- Type and speed of network connection
- Cost and level of affordability
- Governance & political context: governments may throttle (deliberately slow down) speeds or completely shut down the internet as a means of political control
- Digital adoption and digital literacy
Individuals adapt to these circumstances to access the internet through the most available and affordable means. In this way, someone might use multiple devices accessed in both public and private spaces via different networks at varying costs for distinct purposes throughout their daily life.
Lack of internet access is threat to personal safety and democracy
As a result of the pandemic, individuals who were already navigating access, reliability, cost, and digital literacy issues are faced with even starker choices around when and how they can access the internet . As essential activities and services are forced online, individuals who access the internet at school or from their workplace have been forced to choose between safe social distancing practice and reliable, fast internet access. Data caps also make for hard choices, and those who have lost income due to the pandemic might have to reduce their internet usage to make ends meet. People who have less exposure to internet services, like the elderly, may now find themselves poorly equipped to connect with family and access vital information and services. Additionally, for jurisdictions where telecommunications and electrical infrastructure are unreliable or in which the government throttles or blocks the internet (such as in Myanmar, India, and Bangladesh), temporary disruptions have led to periods of complete social isolation for vulnerable populations and can mean the difference between life and death.
These challenges have serious implications for public crisis management and political stability. The ability of people to exercise their civil and political rights and the resilience of democratic systems will increasingly depend on their level of internet access. In countries where social media services are zero-rated, a practice in which users are provided free access to certain platforms or services, some internet users exclusively access the internet via social media without the ability to search the wider web. People who access the internet solely through social media platforms are much more likely to fall prey to rumors, disinformation and hate speech, all of which have mushroomed during the pandemic. Additionally, without reliable internet access, activists and advocacy organizations will be unable to organize, communicate with core constituencies, and hold governments accountable.
As part of emergency efforts to provide connectivity and to deliver health and human services, policymakers need to consider the challenges that vulnerable populations face related to increased bandwidth needs, loss of income, and the disruption of free and lower cost public internet access options. Governments should remove all barriers to connectivity and affordability and providers should offer discounts and lift data caps to ensure access is affordable to all throughout the crisis.
The pandemic has made clear that mobilizing resources toward high-quality, affordable universal internet access must be viewed as an essential piece of not only our response to the current crisis, but also of how we rebuild and recover. Now is the time to build the information infrastructure needed to create more sustainable, resilient, and equitable democratic and economic systems.