The Internet, the Right to Not be Connected and Forgotten

In September 2009, Bell Labs set a data transmission speed record at 100 petabits per second, equivalent to 100 billion megabits per second able to transmit 400 DVDs worth of data per second.

According to estimates by the international research firm, Gartner, “By 2020, there will be 25 billion of smart devices, transmitting tiny amounts of data to us, to the cloud and to each other.”

The Internet has grown out of independent networks into a global entity. It now serves as a platform for communication, business, entertainment, education and for many other means as data production, transmission and retention is increasing tremendously globally.

The Internet is just a few decades old, but in a short span of time it has experienced significant changes and presents us with exciting possibilities and questions.

How about the ‘Governance of the Internet’?

The more modern society depends on the Internet, the more crucial the issue of governance of the Internet becomes. The Internet has become a complex socio-technical system that has vested economic and political interests. Nation-states and societies are competing for the establishment of legal frameworks and public policy practices that preserve or expand national interests and social value systems.

Thus the governance of the Internet is no longer the only concern for government and corporates but for all those who use or do not use. Internet governance matters to all of us whether we are among the two billion who are using it or the next billion awaiting to be connected.

I had the opportunity to attend several Internet policy forums at regional and International level to realise that Internet Governance (IG) as a policy discussion and technical coordination of issues related to the exchange of information over the internet is moving increasingly into the public eye.

It is important to state that IG fora produce non-binding discourse as they do not lead to traditional policy outcomes in the form of treaties - which constitutes their main weakness. Nevertheless, the emphasis on open participation and the involvement of non-state actors in local, regional and global Internet policy debates may constitute its strength.

IG fora enables the voices of the marginalised to be heard and conflicting corporates and humanitarian interests can find a compromise.

Attending these fora, among others, the protection of privacy and human rights has been one of my focal points and that of many civil society activists. From Africa to Latin America, human rights activists view Internet governance from the perspective of freedom of expression, privacy and other basic human rights.

This has made me realised that nowadays living in a modern connected society, influencing political and technical infrastructure of the Internet is influencing the civil liberties that are impacted or enacted by this technology.
How about the ‘Right to be Connected’?

It is important that principles of human rights and processes of Internet are equally balanced. A permanent dialogue between technical needs and rights of communities they impact on should be guaranteed in order to defend both human rights and a free and open Internet.

A United Nations report in 2011 has concluded that disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation.

In its preamble, the African Declaration on Internet Rights and Freedoms emphasises that the Internet is an enabling space and resource for the realisation of all human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, the right of access to information, the right of freedom of assembly, the right to freedom of opinion, thought and belief, the right to be free from discrimination in all forms, the right to education, the right to culture and language, and the right of access to socio-economic services.

Access to the web is now a human right.

While I recognise how important the Internet is for the development of Africa, Africans and societies worldwide, I do think that we are sometimes moving too fast in overstating its relevancy or stature in people’s lives.
It is important to note that Internet access cannot be equally considered as a necessity in the day-to-day lives of all habitants of the planet earth and does not even come close to be considered a basic human right by some Americans.

For the vast majority of people living in the United States, Internet use is a given, an expectation, a norm. A Pew Research study reports that there is still a considerable portion of Americans who do not turn to the Internet at all, stating they have no interest in it, did not think it is relevant to their lives or it is too difficult to use.

This year, overall 15 percent of Americans exclude themselves from the Internet. Senior citizens made up a hefty portion of those who do not use the Internet. Thirty-nine percent of those 65 and older say they do not go online, compared with three percent of those ages 18 through 29, according to new data from Pew Research.

Based on location, culture or ethnicity factors: people in rural areas in the United States are around twice as likely as those in urban or suburban locales to never go online. In its latest research based on a series of three polls conducted this year, Pew found that around 20 percent of African Americans and 18 percent of Hispanics say they do not use the Internet, compared with 14 percent of whites and five percent of English-speaking Asian Americans.

Elsewhere, different circumstances still lead to the same realisation. In dense tropical forests in Central Africa and Amazon and in many remote areas, there are people who for generations have preserved their cultures and societies in balanced interaction with highly complex yet now vulnerable ecosystems. For centuries, these people have been marginalised on all fronts either on economic policy, global environmental policies or regional agreements. These communities have been victims to industrialisation, urbanisation and climate change. Now thinking that our modern value system is the best, there is a danger to using the Internet as a new tool of colonisation.

Despite the hype over new technologies, it is important that we come to the realisation that people can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives. That is a fundamental right to be respected.
Human rights are described as standards of behaviour that are inherent in every human being. They are the core principles underpinning human interaction in society. These include liberty, justice, freedom of religious beliefs and choice.

To me considering the Internet as a human right should also imply that people’s choice ‘Not-Be-Connected’ should be respected. Consequently, forcing them on the network or to use a given technology would overstep their right to culture and that to be free from discrimination at certain extent. In this case, legal recognition of cultural rights of forest-based peoples and remote communities is crucial to the fulfilment of their human rights.

Agree with me that you can live without the Internet. You just won't be part of today's society if you do. It seems to me that these individuals and ‘primitive’ societies still never wanted to be part of it.

How about the 'Right to be Forgotten'?

As the network evolves, Internet governance plays out as cultural politics in a debate about what values and core principles should be preserved.

Corporates in telecommunications and web firms are researching and deploying innovative technologies to provide wide Internet access via balloons and satellites. In a short while, those who could not afford broadband costs will be connected at no cost. Yet, free access does not always come with the freedom to disengage or the ability to erase data trail. 

In 2014, a European court sided with a Spanish man attempting to have links to a negative story about him removed from the online search engine Google. Invoking a version of what is known as the ‘right to be forgotten’, the European Union Court of Justice ruled that citizens have the right to ask that links be removed if they contain information that is "inadequate, irrelevant or no longer relevant."

However, critics contend that such a sweeping new right is sure to have unintended consequences - for starters, by potentially depriving the public of useful information. There are also questions as to whether enforcing a right to be forgotten is even practical.

Few days ago, Google said no to French demand to expand right to be forgotten worldwide.

In conclusion, many major web firms are struggling to deal with the fall-outs of applying the same rights across a number of different nations. This clearly shows how the Internet is never been equal and will never be if all stakeholders are not forced to comply, in the ‘right to be forgotten’ case is the private sector whose argument of protecting public useful information hides purely financial strategies that clearly favour corporations needs over individuals or users fundamental rights.

Technological inventions and Internet processes have outgrown national legislations. Having said that, on one hand governments need to play their primary role of enforcing regulations as well as providing infrastructure for economic growth and welfare of its citizens. On the other hand, civil society should lobby and participate in global policy making to uphold rights of citizen over the ever growing influence of the Internet economy in society and multinational corporations. Coordination, strong action and engagement are needed from all stakeholders to ensure that the Internet as a human right is more than just a declaration, and sustainable development needs are in line with the respect of fundamental rights.

  • Adam Mukendi Ntala is advocacy and digital media consultant. Twitter: @Adam_McKendi. He formerly worked as a Digital Media Manager at SANGONeT. 

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