Digital Diplomacy

The Internet is a Human Right

Elizabeth Radtke

The Internet is a Human Right



Yes, just like access to clean water, proper education and healthcare, access to the internet is a basic human right. And the UN, kind-of, think so too.

This past June, the UN General Assembly Human Rights Council passed a non-binding resolution condemning countries that intentionally take away or disrupt its citizens’ internet access (resolution 1610802). OK, so they didn’t exactly profess their support for internet access as a basic human right, nor did they sign a legally binding resolution, but they took a much needed step in the right direction.

The world in which we live is, unreservedly, dependent on open communication across countries. While we may joke about spending too much time on the internet, our technologies, economies, political establishments and infrastructures are completely dependent on the internet. Take it away, we would have nothing.

It’s not just the UN that shares this view. Mark Zuckerbeg – ie. the man that created the biggest, and most addictive, online tool – believes that it is the obligation of international human rights law and governments around the world to make the internet accessible to everyone. Zuckerbeg, along with Bill Gates and Bono’s organization One, has partnered to lobby for universal access to the internet by 2020. The campaign, Connect the World, was created upon the basis that internet access is essential for creating humanity’s global goals.

Think about it: the most pressing problems the world faces today – from education to healthcare to conflicts and wars – are tackled by digitally connecting people from around the globe.

But does this mean that access to the internet is an inalienable human right? Or does it just mean that the internet expedites growth and efficiency amongst the human race as an accessory, and not an extension of oneself?

Limited access to the internet worldwide is creating a digital divide that is inhibiting the growth of developing countries, thus impacting the potential of individuals. This divide is contributing to the growing gap between the rich and the poor, the continued inequality between women and men, and the constant turmoil of conflict zones and failed states. This is why internet access is a basic human right. In today’s globalized world, without access to the internet, human growth – intellectually, politically, and economically – is severely repressed. We see this lack of growth in the developing world, in education, in health care, and in the most vulnerable of societies.

“If we connect the more than four billion people not yet online, we have a historic opportunity to lift the entire world in the coming decades”

Mark Zuckerberg

The Developing World

In developing countries, a 10% increase in internet access adds 1.28 – 2.5% to annual GDP growth. That’s huge. In countries like Myanmar (Burma), with the lowest internet penetration rate in the world (1.16% in 2015), but with a relatively high GDP rate of growth (7% in 2015), they could experience a much bigger increase in economic output, productivity rates and overall GDP should they allow easier access to the internet for its citizens.

Numbers aside, the developing world faces countless struggles and obstacles, which are only rendered further difficult in our increasingly globalized and interconnected world. Basic rights that those in the Global North can easily access are at times impossible to reach in certain developing countries. But the internet can, and will, change that.

As a delegate to the World Bank and IMF Annual meetings last year, I sat in on a presentation regarding big data and the developing world. Satellite dishes – the size of bread baskets – can now map real time changes that occur in the developing world in order to best disseminate goods and services to target countries. Innovative by nature, projects like these that depend on the internet could be used to further target developing countries and help its people achieve their full potential in the future.

Financial literacy is also key in order for citizens in developing countries to succeed. One of the ways this can be achieved is through online banking and smartphone technology. Small businesses owners, be they whether fruit stands or hair salons, need access to secure banking systems. The alternative of stuffing cash in a couch can be dangerous in theft and crime-prone countries. Giving business owners access to smartphone banking technology and internet access will privy them to the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment (Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights).

Conflict Zones and Political Unrest

The current Syrian civil war has drawn unprecedented international attention. According to the UNHCR, 4.8 million Syrians have fled to neighbouring countries and across the globe, and 6.6 million are internally displaced. In order to cross the perilous Aegean seas towards Turkey and continental Europe, Syrians depended on one thing: access to the internet.

A classmate of mine last year recounted the story of her family – parents, and three sisters – who fled Damascus to Mytilene, Greece. Her mother had her iPhone on her during the entire journey, pinning her location to her daughter, who was in Canada. When the family ran into troubled seas and their dingy broke down, the daughter could locate the exact position of her family and notified both the Greek and Turkish authorities. The family was rescued safe, albeit shaken, and sound.

This story is one of many; and not just from Syrians. When I worked for the UNHCR in Cape Town, countless numbers of refugees fleeing war town countries such as the DRC and Somalia, relied on their smartphones to bring them to safety. Without this access to the internet, innocent people fleeing persecution and war, would not have been granted the most basic of human rights: the right to life, liberty and security of person.

When Egypt fell witness to one of the most iconic moments in modern history, the Arab Spring, the people of Egypt talked power through technology. While controversial, it was because of and through the use of the internet, that the people of Egypt were able to upheave their government and dictator of decades. This uprising was of their own fruition, and the use of the internet was of their own volition. There still, unfortunately, exists failed states and conflict zones throughout this world. If the people of Somalia, for instance, were to be given universal access to the internet, who knows what would happen to their current government and political system. I am not making the case for regime change. Quite the opposite, I am making the case for freedom of peoples wishes – regardless of political will – through the use of the internet.


While I feel like this point is slightly redundant, it is worthwhile to discuss its absolute and forever relevance. Education is the key to development. In order to be fully and unbiasedly educated today, children need access to the internet. Otherwise, put simply, they will not be able to achieve the same successes or reach the same level of equity, as those in the Global North.

The sum of all human knowledge is online. Every historic event, every mathematical equation, and every episode of The O.C. is on the internet. Giving children access to the internet across the world will not only allow them to learn about our past, but it will drive them to innovate and create for our future. What is a human right now if we cannot enjoy it in the future?


Telemedicine is revolutionizing the way doctors diagnose and treat patients around the world. For example, a new telemedicine hub has been made operational in the province of Kashmir, India last month. This makes it the 105th telemedicine clinic in India. Staff at these telemedicine clinics examine the patients’ basic details, take their vitals and send the data to the physician via satellite. The doctor then examines the case after which a tele-consultation appointment will be scheduled. The treatment and consultation comes at one-tenth the cost as a normal appointment, as it saves people from covering long distances and spending money on local accommodation during the treatment period.

But this isn’t only a problem in the developing world. Rural areas in developed countries do not have good quality or reliable access to the internet. My grandfather, for instance, who lives in a modern apartment in Greece, does not have internet. While he would hardly use the service to create a Facebook or Instagram account, I would argue that internet would give him the ability to order necessary drugs and pharmaceuticals online, saving him time and money he now uses to get himself to the pharmacy.

Girls and Women

One of the main pillars of the Connect the World campaign is to ensure girls and women have equal and fair access to the internet. While lack of internet access amongst girls and women is indicative of the much larger problems they face in society today, it is certainly necessary to emphasize when talking about digital literacy. Many girls and women, most notably in developing and rural areas, cannot access the internet. Perceived duties within the home, lack of transportation, lack of literacy, and overall disapproval of technology within local communities impedes girls and women from accessing the internet. This stigma is only further emphasized with male-dominated internet cafes in city centres, that make many girls and women feel unsafe. This dilemma has now led to women-only internet cafes opening in places Baghdad and Dakar.

While I am an ardent supporter of women’s rights and a self-identified feminist from a young age, I am also a realist in saying that girls and women will continue to face many obstacles in coming years when attempting to access the internet. Our male counterparts will certainly be more privileged in universal internet access before us. In order for girls and women to access basic internet across the world, we must tackle many other issues alongside it; including systemic patriarchy, suppression of women through gender based violence, low literacy rates amongst girls and women and lower economic statuses. It will be a long, albeit worthwhile, road ahead.

While the UN resolution 1610802 was passed in June, it was opposed by several countries including Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, and India. More than 70 countries may have stood up and voted for internet as a human right, but numerous countries showed that they would rather suppress their citizens and stand against progress and modernism. It is also a shame that the UN resolution is non-binding. It now serves as just a general statement on how governments should shape laws when it comes to the internet. For now, ironically, it only serves the purpose of filling a few pieces of digital paper.

However, some countries are stepping up. Continental Europe, North America, Scandinavian countries, are now providing countless wireless hotspots in their major cities. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, notwithstanding an example of how far we have to go.

I’m not being altruistic or facetious in my claim, rather, I am being realistic of the internet as a human right. 4.2 billion people still are without basic access to the internet. Let’s help change that.