By Nicole Graham, Humanitas Global
May 17 was the United Nations’ day for World Telecommunication and Information Society Day. It has been celebrated since 1969, when it was established to “help raise awareness of the possibilities that the use of the internet and other information and communication technologies (ICT) can bring to societies and economies”.
In his address, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon acknowledged that ICT access is now incorporated in the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In 2011, Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue asserted to the UN Human Rights Council that access to the internet should be considered a fundamental human right. His report stated that humans should both have access to the physical and technical infrastructure required to support the internet in the first place, as well as access to all of its content. He addressed the ways in which states are increasingly censoring online content, explored the criminalization of free expression, and concluded that the UN should be working towards universal internet access.
According to A Human Right, a member of the UN Working Group For Emergency Telecommunications, 4.6 billion people are living without internet access, which equates to 68% of the planet.
This deprives those without access in numerous ways:
- Economic opportunity – web access both connects people to opportunities and creates them
- Democracy – as seen with the 2011 Arab Spring, the internet serves as a platform for global citizenship
- Education – the internet chronicles all human knowledge, accessed with a few clicks
- Disaster relief – rapid communication is essential to provide quick response, relief, assistance and aid
- Healthcare – technology is revolutionizing the way the wealthy and poor alike access healthcare
Connectivity is essential to the progress of developing countries. Often the internet serves as a tool to distribute common goods and infrastructure when the state cannot do so. It is a way to extend financial services to those who cannot reach banks. It is a way to improve agriculture, education, social security, and health.
Expanding connectivity has long been a priority, but remains a struggle. Every year, the ITU/UNESCO Broadband Commission for Digital Development ‘State of Broadband’ report explores the progress made in global connectivity. The 2015 report cited strong growth rates for mobile broadband and Facebook use, but explains that cellular subscriptions and internet usage has noticeably slowed. The UN Broadband Commission of 2011 has not met its target date of 2015, and it seems unlikely to achieve its goals by 2020. The proportion of households in developing countries with internet access has increased from 31.5% in 2014 to 34.1% in 2015, but it is well short of the 40% target the UN set.
Gender gaps in internet access are prevalent, with an estimated 200 million more men online than women in 2013, although a lack of sex-disaggregated data makes this difficult to determine. The financial disparity is strong, with less than a 7% connectivity rate in least developed countries, and only 1 in 9 households connected in sub-Saharan Africa.
While internet has become more affordable overall, it still is exorbitant in the places that need its benefits the most. Tech giants such as Google have promised to deliver internet to the developing world with revolutionary tactics, but these reports have quieted in the last two years.
This year’s UN day theme is focused on youth. As Secretary General Ban Ki-moon explains, this generation of youth is unprecedentedly well-versed in the use of ICTs. The Secretary General urged leaders to invest in youth, who will be the future innovators to provide technological solutions to climate change, gender gaps, and monetary flows. They can create jobs, improve economies, and open up the technological world to developing countries. But first, governments, civil society, and businesses must invest in young populations in order to facilitate the positive social impact this movement can have.