The internet as a human right, Or, There’s no such thing as a free lunch

I just published a commentary in IEEE Internet Computing that argues that treating internet access as a right is having some unexpected consequences for other rights. Here’s an excerpt:

By arguing for a universal right to the internet, we turn the internet into something universal, decontextualised and apolitical, whereas in fact it is precisely the opposite. The internet, whether delivered through mobile phones or cables, is composed of physical and logical infrastructure that must be created, negotiated, permitted, installed, regulated, and purchased in a long process of actions in order for a data plan to be offered by a provider. It is both literally and figuratively embedded in national space. One function of zero-rating in developing countries is to take that national process of building and negotiating connectivity and turn it into The Internet. Once this disjuncture has happened, it’s then usual to hear it argued that The Internet can Solve Poverty, or Solve Education, or Solve Healthcare.  The decontextualised, de-territorialised Internet can do any number of things, but – unfortunately – it can only do them in the abstract. For actual education to occur, rather than Education, internet content has to be translated, moulded and aligned to fit with what people need to know to progress in a particular place. It’s great to have MOOCs, it’s great to have apps, and children are indeed miraculous, creative, curious creatures who will figure out how to make good use of any internet access at all. However, as suggested before, try imagining your local school system has disappeared and your children are instead being offered Wikipedia in Swahili via a ten-dollar smartphone. It’s interesting to watch them figure out how to use it, but it’s not quite what you had in mind when you paid your taxes. Oh, and if you want them to be able to click on a Google search result in their own language, you have to pay 650 dollars a month.

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