I recently came across an intriguing white paper, released by Mark Zuckerberg last year, in which a provocative question is posed: “Is connectivity a human right?” — a question that addresses the prospect of bringing internet connection to those in developing countries who are currently excluded from the internet. This mission has been conceived and initiated through a project called Internet.org, set up as a partnership between a variety of communications businesses, including Facebook and Nokia.
According to the white paper, connectivity would be a human right. This would allow more people to join the knowledge economy.
The services contemplated by the white paper are basic insofar as they are non-data-intensive and would provide for a low level of data consumption while extending the economic sustainability of expanding affordable internet infrastructures into domestic homes where there is a little or no coverage. These services would include messaging, social networks such as Facebook, search engines and Wikipedia. Their provision would in turn increase the volume of demand for services and the use of more data.
From an economic and technological point of view, the low disposable income spent on data access would provide the low profits that the telecom industry players would gain from providing free or cheap internet access while building up all the necessary infrastructures. However, the lack of phones and knowledge of data plans and internet content on the part of a majority of people living in developing countries will certainly slow down any mobile revolution. It would therefore be necessary to provide smartphones if the new infrastructure is going to be used, a condition which will be fulfilled once telecom companies can balance the expense of internet access and the use of less data against the engagement of consumers with services offered on a feasible basis of pre-paid business models.
Several barriers impede the passage to the establishment of connectivity as a human right, at least considered in its own or as part of the knowledge economy, even without addressing any legitimate objections raised in relation to earlier generations of different human rights.
From the legal perspective, defining connectivity as a human right could mean either creating a new generation of human rights in the name of the global knowledge or trying to include and interpret connectivity in the light of existing human rights, paying attention to the interplay between already-recognised human rights and connectivity in order to assess if and how it can affect them.
What would be in essence the right of connectivity?
If a right to connectivity should be found within the existing provisions the right to freedom of expression and information would play an upfront role both in the light of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) Article 19 and of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) Article 10, and of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU (CFR), Article 11. This freedom implies the sharing of information and though by any means, regardless of frontiers and without interference. This fits perfectly with the concept of a borderless digital world.
Another categorization of a right to connectivity that suggests itself is the right of education (Article 26 of the UDHR, Article 2 of the Protocol to the ECHR and Article 14 of the CFR), in order to justify the diffusion of data access in developing countries.
The circulation of data would clearly entail the treatment of personal data, also protected as a fundamental right in all the legal sources already cited (Article 12 of UDHR, Article 8 of ECHR and Article 7 and 8 of the EUCFR). This right would pose challenges to the indiscriminate diffusion of data access without providing consistent knowledge and understanding of how technological issue can affect personal life.
Looking at the financial side of things, the advent of internet services in developing countries would be feasible only if those new markets ultimately turned out to be profitable. Besides the revenues generated by the services provided for these new users, the collection of information concerning them may create a valuable asset for companies willing to establish themselves in new online markets. This is so even where pre-paid business models are the sole way for consumers in those countries to undertake online transactions that are connected either to mobile traffic or to internet content. Further, going mobile online could create new opportunities for users in developing countries insofar as data access could leverage the facilities connected with actual business models applied within the sharing economy, providing services on platforms functioning as social networks.
So, maybe, thinking of the question of connectivity in developing countries, besides struggling with definitions it may be important to identify its scope of protection if it were to be recognised as a fundamental right and then to let that right engage in dialogue with other human rights.