What we’ve been calling the World Wide Web for the last few decades isn’t actually worldwide. Four billion people, more than half the world’s population, remain disconnected. No e-mail, no Wikipedia. Six years ago I started a nonprofit called A Human Right to help connect the disconnected. At the time, the topic wasn’t a mainstream issue, but now Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, Google, and Richard Branson are all working to ensure that the Web indeed becomes worldwide (see “Project Loon”).
Why is access so important? The Internet is bigger than Wikipedia and e-mail. I believe Internet access should be considered a basic human right.
In 1948, the United Nations adopted a Declaration of Human Rights that covers basic liberties like the right not to be enslaved, the right to access education, and the right to a home and a job. Obviously, those framers couldn’t have predicted the existence of the Internet or what it would mean for humanity. If the declaration were written today, it’s likely that Internet access would be included.
This doesn’t mean that governments or taxpayers should be expected to provide Internet access to everybody around the world. It does mean that we should protect access for those who have it, and encourage expansion to the people who don’t. It means that a government that attempts to restrict, impede, or remove Internet access is violating its citizens’ basic human rights.
The online world enables many things the U.N. considers human rights, such as education and freedom of expression. In Kabul, Afghanistan, hundreds of young Afghan women have been poisoned for attending school and brutalized for expressing themselves. But a small women-only cybercafé, funded partially by online donors, has opened. It has, in effect, restored their rights to education and expression.
But Internet access isn’t important just because it supports the exercise of other human rights—framing Web access that way undervalues the power of being connected.
The Internet, built on top of the brick-and-mortar society we call civilization, is its own unique society. It grants a global perspective to our lives. Internet access, in fact, makes people a part of a global citizenship—it gives them the ability to collaborate, learn, interact, and empathize with the rest of humanity.
It is the only place where all people can meet as equals to engage in the global digital society that shapes our physical world. Without access, the disconnected don’t have a voice in the process, and the world moves on without them. With it, they can have an impact that’s worldwide.
Kosta Grammatis is a former engineer at SpaceX and is now a correspondent for Al Jazeera covering technology.