The United Nations Human Rights Council has in the past 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 subsequently led to a landmark resolution which saw the United Nations declare 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 that often goes ignored in South Africa. In May 2012, research conducted by World Wide Worx found Internet penetration in SA to be nearing 20 percent. This was been attributed to the spread of smartphones and ordinary cellphones with Internet connectivity.
This is, however, a very low figure, more so considering that 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; but also to access government and other institutions, which would ordinarily be out of reach. It can also serve as an enabler in organising not only communities, but also beyond the territorial confines of the usual 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 located. This may seem insignificant to some, but to those in these realities, it makes all the difference as experienced in Rooigrond.
The Internet is also having an impact not only in individual lives and in communities, but civil society organisations are increasingly turning to the net to raise awareness about their programmes and work, as well as for fundraising purposes. Also, civil society organisations seem to be awakening to the possibilities it holds, particularly as we explore the intersections between media, technology and the nonprofit sector.
The impact of the Internet, if used appropriately, can also transform the nonprofit sector. Instead of claiming to be ‘the voice of the voiceless’, the sector can actually amplify the voices of those whom they serve. This is important as people are not voiceless, it more often than not a matter of not being heard due to social exclusion. This means that 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, as 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 whom they serve, but without Internet penetration, possibilities are rather limited. Civil society across sectors should be joining hands to demand universal 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 SA.
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; however, 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.