A daily mantra rings out from government officials around the world: The call to visit official websites to get the latest information on the COVID-19 pandemic and to access essential services. Yet to many constituents accessing the internet is not an option because internet access is still considered a luxury available only to those who can afford it. This has to change.
Over the past two months, everything from education to work to ordering and delivery of essential goods to basic communication has moved online. COVID-19 has made one thing very clear: Internet access is a necessary condition for the ongoing functioning of our society, and every person should have access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet at a price they can afford.
The internet is an essential service. It is time we take political action to ensure every person has access to it.
The privilege of access
Late last year, a video surfaced on social media showing a 10-year-old boy doing his homework on a display tablet in an electronics shop. The description read “Humanity at its best…?? This child doesn’t have internet access at home, so a store in the shopping mall allows him to use their tablet to do homework.”
For many, this was their first introduction to what’s been labeled the “Homework Gap,” a sub-segment of the Digital Divide. Millions of students around the world do not have access to the internet and are therefore not able to access the full educational resources made available to them.
Flash forward a few months to today, and that electronics shop is closed, as is the school, the library, the coffee shop, and any other place that 10-year-old boy relied on to access essential online services. And he is joined by millions of others, young and old, in cities and in rural areas, all over the world, at home, without the ability to access the websites their elected representatives so urgently point them to.
Inequity is the norm
Almost half the world’s population has no access to the internet. At all. Those most affected are, as seems to be the case for most things, women, the poor, and the disenfranchised. Why? Because internet access is considered a luxury, and its availability is contingent on large media companies deeming your particular region of the world worthy of investment, and your ability to pay often excessive fees to get access to it. Somehow, in our relentless pursuit of faster connections and devices giving access to vital (and entertaining) online services, we have glossed over this inequity. COVID-19 took a steel brush to that veneer, forcing upon us the reality of how vital a fast, stable, and unfiltered internet connection has become to our lives. We have gone from tweeting about how nice that store was for letting that kid do his homework on a display device to realizing our home internet is our lifeline to information, income, connection, and entertainment. The internet has become essential to our lives, yet we treat it as a privilege afforded those fortunate enough to live where a connection can be established and wealthy enough to pay the excessive fees for access.
A public good
Late last year, a boy in an electronics store caught the attention of the internet and people started talking about providing proper equipment and connections to students. When COVID-19 hit and school children were sent home and told to attend classes online, school districts booted up ad-hoc solutions like parking digitally equipped buses at community sites to provide access for students. That’s a dollar-store band-aid on a gaping 20-year-old wound.
The digital divide causes hardship to millions of people by depriving them of essential access to the internet. COVID-19 did not create this problem – it merely made it impossible to ignore. Banks, government services, education, shopping, news and information, much of what we consider necessary conditions for functioning in modern society had already migrated online prior to COVID-19. Today the internet has become the only means of access to many of these services. It can no longer be considered a luxury, and its availability can no longer be contingent on the whims and profits of large media corporations. That’s why the World Wide Web Foundation is working to label the open web a public good, and that’s why you and me and everyone else need to demand political action to make the internet available to all.
Let’s not beat around the bush any longer:
The internet is an essential service. As such, any limitation of access to a person or group based on their physical location, income level, or any other reason is effectively an act of discrimination.
To the elected representatives of the world I say this: Declare the internet an essential service. Guarantee equitable access to fast, reliable, and unfiltered internet for all. Put plans in place today to connect the world in a way that promotes human flourishing over corporate profits.
To the media corporations who have grown fat and complacent on profits from connecting people to the things they need I say this: You’ve had your fare share and more. You succeeded in making the internet an essential service. Now you must act like it: Do your civic duty and share that wealth with the world by building solutions that put human connection above shareholder profits.
We have awoken into a new and unfamiliar world where we all feel a bit more vulnerable. It is in times like these we find solace in solidarity with other people and with ourselves. Let’s do this small thing together to better the world for everyone