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Right to Internet is a Human Right: Rethinking Digital Access

By  Maya Dodd

Learning Loss

A study conducted by Azim Premji University that was undertaken in Jan 2021 and surveyed over 16,000 children across 1137 public schools in 45 districts across 5 states (Chattisgarh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand),  remarked that the years of the pandemic were underwritten by a significant learning loss. While this may partly be based on the absence of classes due to school closures, this report has been able to baseline its findings against a March 2020 comparison, when the same four abilities tested across children in classes 2 to 6 in 2020 were repeated as tests in 2021, and identified between 82 and 92 percent learning loss across all classes. Though the focal point of the study pertains to the need to allow enough time to compensate for learning loss, one can extrapolate further from the study, by asking a simple question: Could access to digital devices and connectivity have mitigated this learning loss in any way?  This learning loss is now especially visible in the arguments of evidence mounting on the need to catch up even after school and college re-openings. The learning loss disparity between these groups is significant and brings to the fore the geographical (and economic) contours of the digital divide and brings us to consider the responsibility and the mandate vis a vis the state’s duty and citizen welfare.

As Rajagopal Devara, current Principal Secretary, Finance Department, Government of Maharashtra argued in an article, “to realise the dream of digitally inclusive India, the internet has to be provided as a public good.[” Though it seems like a formidable challenge, connectivity is a prerequisite for basic life as has also been designated by the UN. In 2016 the UN General Assembly passed a non-binding resolution that “declared internet access a human right.” The Honourable Supreme Court has declared access to internet a fundamental right. The ruling is in sync with the United Nations recommendation that every country should make access to the Internet a fundamental right. The state government of  Kerala has now followed the Supreme Court and declared the internet as a basic human right and provided free internet access to 20 lakh poor households. So, the idea of  internet access as a basic right has some consensus across judicial, political and civic communities.

Two Crises for Connectivity

While this fundamental need is obvious to realise basic citizenship, debates on the digital which focus on privacy and data protection have always assumed connectivity as an a priori. It is to be noted that India has the highest number of disconnected people despite having the second largest online market in the world. That being said, 50% of the country’s population still doesn’t have internet access.While much attention has been paid to the IT act, rules governing internet infrastructures, debates on privacy and censorship etc. the vicissitudes of the pandemic have brought to the fore that all these concerns only arrive after the fact of connectivity. Alongside the need for reforms of regulation, which are certainly in order, is also the fact of the desperate need for the delivery of basic infrastructure. Two crises have precipitated this in an urgent manner in India. The fact that remote learning became a necessity in the pandemic and also that the vaccination programme in India was premised on the use of the COWIN app, which has assumed connectivity (not to mention digital literacy and that too in English).  The basic reality about the state of connectivity in India is that this is a nation of mobile-first users.

Mobile First

In 2018, India had the world’s second-largest internet population with over 483 million users, of which 390 million users accessed the internet via their mobile phones In 2019, over 73 percent of India’s total web traffic came from mobile phones.  According to the latest Comscore’s 2020-Global State of Mobile Report released in November ’20, India has registered the highest rise (96%) in users’ time on mobile. It is estimated that by 2023, this figure will reach over 500 million. Though the cost of data in India is the cheapest in the world, it might still be highly unaffordable for many who find themselves below the poverty line. So unlike, Devara’s argument about the need to consider broadband as a basic right, the recognition that the internet is most accessed on phones would urge movement on mobile data as a basic right first. Automatically, attached to this question is the challenge of accessing hardware.

The Creation of Internet As A Basic right

To think of access beyond ownership of hardware is to consider solutions that entertain ideas of public utilities like kiosks or free wifi environments. Let us get one thing out of the way- Facebook Basics was a fiasco and the TRAI order against it was a welcome step. However the idea that access to the internet should be a fundamental right has been reiterated and recognised by democracies across the world. The Honourable Supreme court of India in the landmark 2017 Puttaswamy judgment declared that right to privacy is a fundamental right. Juxtaposed against the Right to Information Act, 2005 should this not mean that access to data/information without infringement on one’s privacy is already underlined by the laws of the land, notwithstanding what the harbingers of the revamped data privacy legislation would have us believe.  Any review of these measures will mean little if there is not an infrastructure that allows access and privacy at the same time. The last mile between privacy and access is connectivity. The question therefore is that if the State is committed to the right of information, it follows that it should facilitate equal access to information to all its citizens. Therefore capacity building with internet connectivity is an infrastructure issue and therefore the responsibility of the state.

This is not a new argument- it has been made and reiterated by many including the government. The point is the pandemic has exposed how woefully inadequate that infrastructure is and foregrounded how crucial it is to build one and the time to build one was yesterday! Enough has been written about the gaps in health infrastructure, but education, especially school education has been hit hard in the time of the pandemic. The consequences are not as visible and do not get as much airtime because the internet is still considered a luxury that only those who can afford it deserve. It is clear that there is a judicial mandate to meet the ground-need of many who would benefit from the provision of connectivity. As the Kerela case makes evident, the internet can be delivered as a fundamental prerequisite to improving quality of life, when viewed as a public good.

Dr. Maya Dodd teaches in the Humanities department at FLAME University where she directs the Centre for Legislative Education and Research. She works on digital humanities in India.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors’ and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house

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