This fall, the United Nations is preparing to launch its 17 Sustainable Development Goals—an extraordinary action plan to solve the world’s biggest problems by 2030. Over the coming months, we’ll be connecting with The Local Globalists: 17 nonprofit founders, entrepreneurs, and social innovators who are working every day, wherever they are, to turn one of the U.N.’s #globalgoals into reality.
Goal 10: Reduce inequality within and among countries.
“I’m not good at being realistic,” jokes Kosta Grammatis, the 30-year-old activist and founder of the internet advocacy group A Human Right. Though he says it with a self-deprecating smirk, you’ll believe him after he tells you the scale of what he boldly advocates for: He wants every single person on the planet to have access to free, uncensored internet.
It was 2009 when it first struck Grammatis that the very thing that had enabled his growth as a thinker and global citizen was out of reach for most people: 4.4 billion of them, to be exact. “I can’t even imagine my life without internet—I’d built a lot of projects using the internet as my educational background instead of teachers and schooling,” Grammatis said. “It struck me that if we’re expecting people to be active participants in the global world we live in, we have to help them help themselves.”
A Human Right started with a focus on implementation, with projects including the installation of the first fiber optic internet cable; providing the internet to remote, indigenous communities; and placing a satellite over developing countries in conflict zones to provide internet access when it may be down. However, in the past two years, Grammatis has shifted the focus of A Human Right to advocacy—promoting the why of universal internet rather than the how.
This was not, Grammatis was quick to explain, a sign of the movement slowing down. Rather, it was simply ramping up in a different way.
“When we first started this work in 2009, nobody was talking about it. Now the biggest players in the game—Facebook, Google, Elon Musk, Richard Branson—all have initiatives,” Grammatis said. “Though they have different approaches, all these initiatives are pointing to a future where internet access is universal. There are so many ways that future can unfold, but I’m excited and optimistic that all these players are working together to solve this big, big problem.”
While Grammatis does not have direct involvement in any of the above initiatives (though he formerly worked under Musk at SpaceX), he says that any plan that results in blanket, free coverage for all with a distributed control mechanism is something he advocates for. While critics might wonder what a child in the developing world would do with internet if she lacks a device to access it, Grammatis says that misses the point. When it comes to a target demographic, there isn't one. He likens his vision as being similar to GPS, which is a service provided by the U.S. government to the entire planet, and available for use free of charge by anyone with a receiving device.
“Just how you can see GPS being used today in so many applications that we couldn't envision before it existed, the idea is that humanitarian organizations and governments can say, ‘This service exists now, let’s leverage it.’ It would open the floodgates for a bunch of things that couldn’t even be imagined before.”
Grammatis’ advocacy takes the form of frequent media appearances and speaking engagements to promote the idea that the internet is a human right—not a privilege reserved for the developed world. In 2014, he also founded a startup called Oluvus (full disclosure: GOOD founder Ben Goldhirsh is an investor), which will sell internet access under a “freemium model” in the U.S., and then use the proceeds to support connectivity projects in parts of the world that remain unconnected.
Whether he’s talking about business models or outer space, it’s clear that Grammatis is apt to think big. But he’s also able to thoughtfully respond to some of the specific criticisms of the universal internet initiative. He’s the first to admit that the internet doesn’t exactly appear on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. But when he does so, he often counters with the fact that there are plenty of people whose basic needs are met—but whose creative or intellectual potential isn't reached due to lack of access.
In addition, though he sees the concern of creating a “walled garden”—i.e. Facebook or Google providing a universal internet service that’s based primarily on their own products—he sees these early attempts by major players as pioneering efforts, rather than finished models.
When it comes to surveillance concerns—that the internet is what has allowed governments to create surveillance states—Grammatis is quick to point out that, “it is also the internet that brought to light the fact that we’re living in a surveillance society…. I believe internet access creates democracy more than it breaks it,” Grammatis adds. “It just introduces new problems that we have to address.”
Criticisms aside, Grammatis sees a clear link between universal internet access and reducing inequality. And that’s precisely why he advocates so doggedly for it to become a reality.
“The way that the international community can now apply pressure on issues around the world is facilitated by internet access—if you don’t have that, you are no longer able to participate in the global stage of democracy that’s going on now,” Grammatis said. “There’s a whole new level of participation that internet enables globally, and everyone should be a part of it.”