In today’s world, the internet has become a critical tool for exercising basic socio-economic human rights such as education, healthcare, work, and housing. A recent study, published in Politics, Philosophy & Economics by Dr. Merten Reglitz, a Lecturer in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, suggests that internet access should be considered a fundamental human right.
The study highlights the importance of internet access, particularly in developing countries, where it can make all the difference between people being able to access education, staying healthy, finding a home, and securing employment or not. Even in countries with offline opportunities, such as accessing social security schemes or finding housing, people without internet access are at a significant disadvantage compared to those who do.
Dr. Reglitz suggests that internet access is a practical necessity for a range of socio-economic human rights, and therefore, it should be considered a standalone human right. He calls for public authorities to provide internet access free of charge for those who cannot afford it, as well as offering training in basic digital skills for all citizens and protecting online access from arbitrary interference by states and private companies.
“The internet has unique and fundamental value for the realization of many of our socio-economic human rights – allowing users to submit job applications, send medical information to healthcare professionals, manage their finances and business, make social security claims, and submit educational assessments,” explained Dr. Reglitz.
He believes that the internet’s structure enables a mutual exchange of information that has the potential to contribute to the progress of humankind as a whole – a potential that should be protected and deployed by declaring access to the internet a human right.
The study highlights the many areas where internet access is critical for people to live with dignity and security, particularly in developed countries.
Dr. Reglitz’s research outlines five areas in developed countries where internet access is vital to exercising socio-economic human rights: education, health, housing, social security, and work.
In developed countries, students who do not have internet access at home are at a disadvantage in obtaining a good education as essential learning aids and study materials are available online.
Similarly, accessing in-person healthcare is challenging in remote communities, particularly in the US and Canada. Online healthcare can help to bridge this gap.
In addition, significant parts of the rental housing market have moved online, and accessing public services today is often unreasonably difficult without internet access.
Jobs are increasingly advertised online, and people must be able to access relevant websites to make effective use of their right to work.
The study also highlights similar problems for people without internet access in developing countries. For example, in sub-Saharan Africa, 20 percent of children aged 6 to 11 are out of school. Many children face long walks to their schools, where class sizes are routinely very large in crumbling, unsanitary schools with insufficient numbers of teachers.
However, online education tools can make a significant difference, allowing children living remotely from schools to complete their education. More students can be taught more effectively if teaching materials are available digitally and pupils do not have to share books.
Dr. Reglitz’s research also notes the role that internet access can play in improving healthcare in developing countries. For example, digital health tools can help diagnose illnesses, and in Kenya, a smartphone-based Portable Eye Examination Kit (Peek) has been used to test people’s eyesight and identify those in need of treatment, especially in remote areas underserved by medical practitioners.
Financial inclusion is another area where internet access is critical in developing countries. People are often confronted with a lack of brick-and-mortar banks, and internet access makes financial inclusion possible. Small businesses can also raise money through online crowdfunding platforms, and the World Bank expects such sums raised in Africa to rise from $32 million in 2015 to $2.5 billion in 2025.
Dr. Reglitz’s study provides valuable insights into the importance of internet access for exercising socio-economic human rights. As the world becomes increasingly digitized, it is vital that policymakers take steps to ensure that everyone has access to the internet, regardless of where they live. By doing so, we can help to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to exercise their human rights and live with dignity and security.
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