The UN has put Internet access on its list of basic human rights. How will this symbolic act translate to policy?
The United Nations just sent out a report declaring that Internet access is a human right. It states that "the Internet has become a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom and expression." The report was inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings, but also implicitly defends people like Julian Assange and other whistleblowers.
For some of us, it may seem like access to the Internet is a third-world concern, especially considering the focus on the recent Middle Eastern revolutions. In fact, it's super-common to hear someone wistfully say they wish they could just "unplug" from their overly connected lives. But just like there are food deserts in the United States, there are Internet deserts, too. Five to 10 percent of Americans can't access Internet that is fast enough to perform basic functions, and that surely affects their ability to get informed, educated, and employed.
So what does this declaration from the UN actually mean? The report concentrates on instituting policies protecting the right to assert oneself freely online, but is the UN pushing nations to provide more public WiFi access, as New York did this week? Or better facilities in libraries? It should. It's not enough for governments to refrain from actively denying people use of the Internet. They also have to help democratize its usage. The good news is that the 2010 Census data on Broadband usage (or lack thereof) is pushing the federal government to initiate more programs expanding access to rural areas.