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The Internet’s time to be a basic ‘human right’ has arrived

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As the World Wide Web marks 32 years in existence, all member states of the United Nations (UN) should finally agree that access to the Internet is a basic human right.

So says the Web Foundation’s chief Web advocate, Nnenna Nwakanma, commenting on the key actions she would like to see realised in her “lifetime” in the wake of the Web’s 32nd birthday.

Thirty two years ago, Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee, then a scientist at the European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN), distributed a document titled "Information Management: A Proposal" intended to improve the flow of information between colleagues.

The term "World Wide Web" was coined in 1990 and, on 6 August 1991, the Internet was accessible for the first time to people outside of CERN.

The idea enabled computers to communicate with one another over a network and the development of a uniform resource locator (URL) allowed users to narrow their searches and browse specific pages.

A human right

Since the start of the World Wide Web, half of the global population has come online. As a result, much has been shared about the aspirations of future access to the Internet.

Speaking to ITWeb, Nwakanma shared four main pertinent levels of action that need to take place, noting access to the Internet as a basic right top among those.

“At the global level – as humanity – we need to play a role by recognising access to Internet is a basic right,” she says. “I would really like to see that in my lifetime and why not this year.”

She goes on to say that as an African, the second thing she would like to see is an agreement that stops Internet shutdowns. “Keep it on is one of my desires. Whatever happens, problems are with human beings and not with the platform itself. If you shut down the Internet on a day and then put back on the next day – what have you gained, if not making people lose money?”

On the third action, Nwakanma emphasises making access to the Internet affordable. “Availability is one thing, affordability is another thing.”

She continues: “Number four is increasing the skills needed for people to be fully engaged and benefit from the Internet. It is really important…to train the teachers because if the teacher is anti-ICT or anti-Internet, he or she will not give the needed support for the learners.

“Everywhere where life skills are taught, we should also teach Internet and Web skills.”

The World Wide Web Foundation’s chief web advocate, Nnenna Nwakanma.
The World Wide Web Foundation’s chief web advocate, Nnenna Nwakanma.

While the half of the world is online, the other half – 3.7 billion people – still remain offline.

Nwakanma is of the view that getting the other half online is a collective responsibility, but ultimately the first one responsible is the government of every country. “A government approach is needed…we are all part of one country or another. It is at country levels that we do the investments, the policies at government-level are very important.

The second are private sector investors, which she says can play a role. “All of us as users can also remind the government because it only when you know your right that you can demand for it. At every point, we all have a role to play but the bigger role falls on the government of every country.”

She says the UN definition of being online is someone who has accessed the Internet for the past three months. However, she stresses that meaningful Internet is the Internet connectivity that allows a person to do meaningful things online.

“When people talk about connectivity, we want to go further and talk about meaningful connectivity. People need to understand that it is not just enough to go to a cyber café to check e-mails or use a free Facebook app that comes with your mobile phone but does not allow you to do many things…It’s not enough just to be connected. Just logging in for 15 minutes every other week or once a month – that is not enough.”

In terms of whether the world will get to meaningful Internet, Nwakanma affirms that that is possible.

“We believe that we need a clear definition of what it means to be connected, and we continue to say that connectivity should be a human right and we should invest in it. The amount has been calculated and researched by the Alliance for Affordable Internet – $428 billion – is what we need to get us all connected by 2030.

“If we all commit to $428 billion in the next 10 years, we’ll have universal access. If we were to put this into perspective, it is $116 person to connect the 3.7 billion that is offline.”

Responsible web

In an open letter, Web inventor Berners-Lee says the Web has proven to be a lifeline that allowed people to adapt and carry on amid the COVID-19 pandemic, adding that its power to catalyse change can and must help shape the desired world.

“Across the globe, young people in particular are leading by example, using the Web to create a better, fairer future,” says Berners-Lee. “These young leaders see the Web as a tool to fight for justice, expand opportunities, and find solutions to pressing problems.”

He goes on to note that while the influence of young people has been felt across their communities and online networks during this time, far too many young people remain excluded and unable to use the Web to share their talents and ideas.

“A third of young people have no Internet access at all. Many more lack the data, devices, and reliable connection they need to make the most of the web.”

Referencing UNICEF stats, Berners-Lee points out that only the top third of under-25s have a home internet connection, leaving 2.2 billion young people without the stable access they need to learn online.

“As we did with electricity last century, we must recognise Internet access as a basic right and we must work to make sure all young people can connect to a web that gives them the power to shape their world.”

Berners-Lee also warns of the abuse, misinformation, and other dangerous content that young people are confronted with when they come online.

This, he says, threatens their participation and can force them from platforms altogether.

According to Nwakanma, Berners-Lee and the original creators of the Internet before the Web all believe that technology should be used for good, which is why it is meant for everyone.

“We call it the World Wide Web because everyone is part of it, but everybody comes and that means the good and the bad all come onto the Web,” she states.

“Three years ago, we said enough is enough. We adopted nine principles for the contract of the Web. Governments must adopt rules and regulations that are needed, so that people can be safe online, people’s rights can be respected online and offenders can be punished.

“Tech companies also have a role to play by design that allows people to be more responsible, governance that allows bad behaviour to be punished or disciplined, and also allows people to report because reporting is actually the big part.

“For users, we are calling for collective responsibility on the part of Web citizens – stand up for what is right, stand up against what is wrong. We have a part to play to report bad behaviour and to stand up and support people that suffer abuse online.”

She concludes: “Africa is the youngest continent and also the poorest – we have youth and we have opportunities - why don’t we use the World Wide Web and put it in the hands of our young people to co-create and make Africa better. When Africa is better, the world will be a better place.”

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