Internet Access: Is It Becoming A Human Right?

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Written by Staff

From TheConversation. Story by Indra de Lanerolle, visiting researcher with the Network Society Lab in the Journalism and Media Program at University of the Witwatersrand.

When most people think or speak about Internet freedom, they are often concerned with the right, for example, to say what you want online without censorship and without being subject to the chilling effects of surveillance.

These kind of freedoms are sometimes called “negative freedoms” or “freedoms from…”. They address the right not to be interfered with or obstructed in living your life. But there are also “positive freedoms” — “freedoms to…”

Some constitutions – notably the U.S. Constitution – only protect negative rights. But South Africa’s includes both negative and positive rights. Positive rights include, for example, the socioeconomic rights to food and shelter.

In its Internet Freedom Index, Freedom House ranks South Africa as “free” alongside the U.K., Argentina and Kenya. The ranking is largely because Freedom House weighs negative freedoms above positive ones. But how “free” is the Internet in South Africa? For most, it is positive Internet freedoms that may be more urgent.

Freedom is access

The South African Constitution in the Bill of Rights does not explicitly protect Internet freedom but states that everyone has the right to “freedom to receive or impart information or ideas.” This is a right for everyone and it is not just a freedom from interference – a “freedom from” – but also a “freedom to”: a right to be able to reach others and be reached by others.

In his book “Development as Freedom,” Amartya Sen describes freedom as “our capability to lead the kind of lives we have reason to value.” In many ways, the Internet is extending such capabilities.

More people now go online daily than read a newspaper. They are able to read a much greater variety of voices than are seen in print or on TV. And public services are offering improved responsiveness on social media.

But we are also seeing a new development – instances where Internet access is now a requirement. Examples include registering a company.

The Gauteng Education Department now requires parents with children entering primary or high school to apply online. Previously they could apply at the local school.

The South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has announced that it will no longer advertise its jobs in newspapers, directing job seekers to its own website.

Indications from government are that we are likely to see more such initiatives. The result will be that South Africans’ ability to lead the kind of lives they value will become increasingly dependent on the physical, procedural, economic and social networks that we call “the Internet.”

Fewer than half of South African adults used the Internet in the previous four weeks, according to the All Media Products Survey (AMPS) of June 2015.

The main reason? They had no device to connect with (87 percent). The second reason was that they didn’t know how to use it (76 percent) and the third was that it was too expensive (60 percent).

Nine out of 10 South Africans now use a mobile phone but only half of those now have access to smartphones, according to the survey. The most popular phone brand in South Africa is still Nokia. Most of the models in use have limited or no ability to connect to the net. And because only the better off have access to fixed lines at home or at work, the majority of South Africans, when they do get online, are dependent on mobile networks.

Mobile data is costly.

Entry level broadband should not cost more than 5 percent of average monthly income, according to the International Telecommunications Union and the U.N.’s Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, which set a goal for affordable broadband Internet access. Digging into the figures shows how unaffordable the Internet is for most South Africans.

About 53 percent of the South African population lives below the poverty line, according to the last census. The poverty line adjusted for inflation to 2016 would be 1031 rand ($67.69 US) per month.

Taking the international 5 percent of income goal gives a maximum budget of about 52 rand ($3.41 US) per month for Internet access. On three major networks (which account for more than 95 percent of all mobile customers) 500MB – the amount of data they set as a minimum – costs between 85 rand ($5.58) and 105 rand ($6.89). So for the average South African 500MB per month is unaffordable. Mobile data prices would have to fall by about half to be affordable.

 

Read more at TheConversation.