How important is it to you to have easy access to the Internet?
Many of us take easy access for granted. But research has shown that only 59% of Canada’s lowest income households have home internet access (CRTC, 2013).
For those who face the dilemma of whether to feed the kids or pay the rent, the additional consideration of paying for the internet is now added to this unsolvable equation.
What is happening in various other jurisdictions?
The United Nations has declared that online freedom is a human right that must be protected. Also, several countries have established internet access as a fundamental right in law.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was formally adopted by the United Nations on December 10, 1948. It is the most universal human rights document in existence, delineating the thirty fundamental rights that form the basis for a democratic society.
Of course, the Internet wasn’t around in 1948 so access to it wouldn’t have been considered an issue in the immediate post war period.
What legal experts have to say
Today internet access is an issue of great debate. Experts have weighed in. Earlier this year, researcher Charis Jung from Pro Bono Canada worked with staff from the Hamilton Community Legal Clinic and looked at what legal experts have to say on the matter.
It is fair to say there is not a clear consensus. For example, Michael Karanicolas, Senior Legal Officer with the Halifax based Centre for Law and Democracy, argues that if one was denied access to the Internet that individual would effectively lose the ability to fully exercise their right to free expression. That is fundamental right #19: Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression. This right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers. https://digitalpublicsquare.com/2015/09/17/interview-with-michael-karanicolas/
On the other side, there are scholars like Brain Skepys. Skepys argues that the Internet is not a form or expression but a means for forms of expression to be heard. In a paper in the Journal of Politics and Law, Skeyps presents five commonly made arguments for a human right to the Internet. They all fail, he concludes. http://www.ccsenet.org/journal/index.php/jpl/article/view/22541/14534
So, there is a real question as to whether it matters if access to the internet is considered a basic human right.
In Canada the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has declared the internet an essential service. The CRTC says that the internet is “necessary to the quality of life.” It is a “vital” and “basic telecommunications service” that all Canadians are entitled to receive. The CRTC recommended putting significant resources into achieving these goals
Unfortunately, the federal government is ignoring the CRTC’s recommendations.
In the most recent budget the government allocated just $13.2 million over 5 years to support low-income Canadians’ access to broadband.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre (PIAC) says that amount is over 100 times lower than suggested by PIAC and other public interest groups in evidence presented last year to the CRTC.
“The support given by the budget essentially amounted to the funding of a tool which would identify low-income households for the purpose of assisting with internet affordability. However, as there is no plan for affordability in place, this database does little to address the problem which keeps getting tossed back and forth like a hot potato, says PIAC in their summer newsletter. https://www.piac.ca/our-specialities/summer-newsletter-affordability-and-accountability/
Other Levels of Government
If the federal government is unwilling to act, what about other levels of government? It is doubtful that provinces will help. How about local governments? What can they do?
Lethbridge, for example, stands out as a community that has thought and acted on this issue.
This Alberta city of 98,000 people has embraced the opportunities and challenges created by information technologies.
They’ve recognized that some residents and businesses don’t have access to fast and reliable internet services. Or they may reside in weak cellular coverage areas and in locations where publically available WiFi is desired but not available.
The city has set up a connectivity working group made up of nine different municipal departments. The group works with various carriers Shaw, Telus, Rogers, and Bell to streamline processes to improve service and “develop a broadband and Wifi strategy for the city.”
Lethbridge believes that their community should be one where “everyone has the ability to access the internet regardless of age, race, gender, or socio-economic group.”
That is because, Lethbridge notes, “as more and more services evolve from paper to online processes, access to the internet provides everyone with equal availability to benefit from those opportunities. It supports the idea that internet access is not a privilege of the wealthy but is a right for everyone.”
Lethbridge’s response seems like something all communities should aspire to.
What Can Be Done?
ACORN Canada, is a national organization with of low and moderate income families with over 102,000 members. They focus on building power for change. One issue they have been active in is the Digital Access to Opportunities campaign. They presented at the CRTC hearings and were successful in making the CRTC acknowledge that access to the internet has become a necessity. ACORN is running a petition campaign that you can find at http://www.internetforall.ca/
Of course, another approach would be for activists to lobby their local governments to copy what Lethbridge has done.
What do you think?
A similar version of this story originally appeared at www.hamiltonjustice.ca