Cape Town - South Africa should invest in its broadband infrastructure to give ordinary citizens access to the internet – which has been declared a human right by the UN.
The UN Human Rights Council has called the right to freedom and expression one of the essential foundations of a democratic society.
It has recognised the internet’s importance in the “promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression”.
This led to a landmark resolution where the UN declared internet access a human right because of “the vast potential and benefits of the internet rooted in its unique characteristics, such as speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity”.
Despite this, the right to internet access – also known as the right to broadband – is a right often ignored in South Africa. In May last year research by World Wide Worx found internet penetration in this country to be approaching 20 percent. This was been attributed to the spread of smartphones and cellphones with internet connectivity.
This is, however, a very low figure, more so considering the internet, if used well, can be an important tool in changing lives for the better. Not only can it be used to disseminate information and stories, also to access government and other institutions that would ordinarily be out of reach. It can also serve as an enabler in organising not only communities, but going beyond the territorial confines of community borders.
The internet also provides access to information, which at a local level can be something as simple as finding out where the nearest police station is. To those in these realities, it makes all the difference.
The internet is affecting not only individual lives and communities, but civil society organisations, which are increasingly turning to the net to raise awareness about their programmes and work, as well as for fundraising.
These organisations seem to be awakening to the possibilities it holds, particularly as we explore the intersections between media, technology and the nonprofit sector.
The internet, if used appropriately, can transform the nonprofit sector. Instead of claiming to be “the voice of the voiceless”, the sector can amplify the voices of those it serves. This is important since people are not voiceless, but more often than not are not being heard owing to social exclusion.
This means the internet can play a very important role in legitimising the important role that civil society organisations play in the country.
My concern, however, is that despite the huge leaps being made by civil society organisations to recognise the possibilities of the internet, I am not hearing enough about access or, better yet, penetration, because access alone is not enough considering factors such as cost. The best apps and other digital tools on Earth can be developed to link civil society organisations to those they serve, but without internet penetration, possibilities are rather limited.
Civil society across sectors should be joining hands to demand universal internet access for citizens.
It is not enough to occasionally raise the topic. As a sector, we need to come up with a united, coherent campaign on the matter, a campaign that also seeks to address location-based, socio-economic and the gender digital divide in South Africa.
A lone voice in the desert can be ignored, but not a united front demanding this right. It can be argued that there are bigger battles to be fought in South Africa, but it cannot be ignored that the fulfilment of the right to internet access potentially can have a positive impact on the fulfilment of other human rights.