Should surfing the web count as a human right? The view from South Africa.

Why We Wrote This

Despite how deeply the internet has reshaped our lives and societies, it’s still unclear how it fits into the language of human rights. The web can be a tool for protecting or expressing them. But is web access itself a right?

Melanie Stetson Freeman/Staff/File
People surf the web in an internet cafe that serves food and drinks in May 2013 in Melville, South Africa.

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Roughly half the planet is online. That share reflects the population of South Africa, where the divide between users and nonusers mirrors the divides in wealth and opportunity in the country more generally. 

Increasingly, activists are finding success in pulling down barriers to internet access by framing their campaigns as a matter of human rights. In South Africa, a business tribunal found earlier this month that two main providers’ high costs for mobile data were “anti-poor,” and must slash their prices to boost “greater economic and social inclusion.”

“In another era, we decided that education was a right, and that it had to be ensured even if you couldn’t pay. That’s the point we’re coming to with the internet now,” says activist Onica Makwakwa.

But putting the internet in the category of human rights, some have argued, places an unfair burden on states to pay for their citizens to have web access.

Yet many governments restrict the internet as a tool to suppress dissent. In 2018, at least 21 African countries experienced a full or partial shutdown of the internet. Ironically, those shutdowns showcase the internet’s growing importance as a tool for free speech on the continent.

Should internet access be seen as a human right?

To answer that question, activist Onica Makwakwa likes to begin with a story.

In 2015, South Africa’s capital Pretoria began setting up free Wi-Fi hotspots across the city. Local media interviewed a teenage boy from Atteridgeville, a poor black community on the city’s fringes, who regularly walked four miles roundtrip to use the nearest hotspot.

Why is this free Wi-Fi so important to you? they asked.

“I live in a shack,” Ms. Makwakwa remembers him replying. “But when I’m on the internet I’m no longer a kid living in a shack.”

The internet, in other words, opened the world to him. Today, roughly half the planet’s population is online, and the gap between the vast universe they can access there – from information to employment to digital money – and the analog existence of the other half is opening wider every year.

Activists like Ms. Makwakwa, Africa coordinator for the Alliance for Affordable Internet, say that’s a crisis. Without internet, many of the world’s poorest are being left behind in the global economy. Those who are most oppressed are being denied knowledge and ways to organize.    

But increasingly, activists are finding success in pulling down barriers to internet access by framing their campaigns as a matter of human rights. In South Africa, for instance, after years of pressure by activists, a business tribunal found earlier this month that two main providers’ high costs for mobile data were “anti-poor” and that they must slash their prices in order to create “greater economic and social inclusion moving forward as the country moves into the digital age.”

“In another era, we decided that education was a right, and that it had to be ensured even if you couldn’t pay. That’s the point we’re coming to with the internet now,” says Ms. Makwakwa. “We need to treat it like a basic utility, a commodity like water or electricity that the poor deserve access to in order to live a dignified life, even if they can’t pay.”

Tsvangirayi Mukwazhi/AP
People access free Wi-Fi on their phones at a public spot in Mutare, Zimbabwe, Nov. 23, 2019.

The South African case underscores that point. The Competition Commission wrote in a report that the country’s two largest cellular providers – MTN and Vodacom – had engaged in “exploitative price discrimination.” The problem was both the high cost of data – around $10 for a gigabyte – and the higher costs of pay-as-you-go services compared with contracts, which activists argued discriminated against poor South Africans who could only afford to purchase airtime in small increments.

The commission agreed. It demanded that the companies cut the price of data within two months, likely by 30% to 50%, and provide all prepaid customers “a lifeline package of daily free data to ensure all citizens have data access on a continual basis, regardless of income levels.”

The report nodded to the fact that the “right to communicate is a fundamental right,” says Lazola Kati, who organizes campaigns around communication rights for the South African nonprofit Right2Know, which advocated heavily for the reduction in data prices.

That view is also backed by the United Nations, which has made increasing internet access part of its sustainable development goals – indicators that are meant to track the quality of life in different countries.

Not everyone agrees with that assessment, however.

“Technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself,” wrote internet pioneer Vint Cerf in 2012. A human right “must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience.” By putting the internet in the category of human rights, others have argued, it places an unfair burden on states to pay for their citizens to have web access, even when they cannot afford it.

But for many governments, restricting the internet is not about saving money. It’s a tool to suppress dissent.

In 2018, for instance, at least 21 African countries experienced a full or partial shutdown of the internet, mostly in response to protests. In countries like Zimbabwe, where more than 95% of financial transactions happen via mobile money, those kinds of shutdowns have profound effects on daily life.

But those shutdowns, ironically, also showcase the internet’s growing importance as a tool for free speech on the continent. In 2018, a quarter of Africans were online – well below the 51.4% worldwide, but a substantial increase from the 4% of Africans using the internet a decade ago.

“The rising number of users is posing an ever bigger threat to governments,” Juliet Nanfuka, a researcher at the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa, an internet think tank and advocacy organization based in Kampala, Uganda, told the Monitor in January.

At the same time, even in African countries where government doesn’t interfere, the high prices of internet access also shut out many potential users. Across the region, for instance, the average cost for a gig of data is about 8% of the average monthly salary. In Congo, Central African Republic, and Chad, the cost is more than 20%. (For an American worker earning $50,000 per year, paying 8% per month would be about $330.)

Approximately half of South Africans are online, but the divide between users and nonusers mirrors the divides in wealth and opportunity in the country more generally. Rich South Africans are far more likely to use the internet than poor South Africans. People in urban areas use it more than those who live somewhere rural. White people have better access than people of color; men better access than women.

Those gaps can never be filled by the market, says Ms. Makwakwa, especially in a place like South Africa, where resources of all kinds were until recently divvied up according to race.

“These kinds of inequalities didn’t create themselves,” she says. “And so our governments have to act intentionally to close the gap as well.”

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