Internet access is a human right in Guatemala, why not in Australia?
Tuesday, 1st October 2013 at 11:31 am
But what does it mean to have access to the Internet if you can’t afford to use it, asks Susan Wilson from Anglicare Victoria.
In August 2012 the indigenous Mayan village of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala declared Internet access to be a basic human right. Despite the region’s precipitous jungle terrain, the government has begun rolling out free wifi across the region so every resident can benefit from the Internet as a means of communication and participation.
The community already has its own website, Facebook page and an active Twitter account. Indeed, observers have commented that the grassroots networking capabilities of the Internet fit right in with traditional Mayan culture. And, critically, the youth are developing their digital skills, giving them access to social, educational and economic tools without the tyranny of distance getting in the way.
Of course, back in Australia, the majority of people living in major cities are already connected. ABS data shows that in 2010-11, roughly 79% of the population had Internet access and, while debate rages on over how exactly it will come to pass, the new Coalition Government has promised to prioritise the connection of towns and regions with the poorest broadband services today.
But what does it mean to have access to the Internet if you can’t afford to use it?
It’s a question that’s being asked across OECD nations. New research indicates that while the digital access gap is shrinking rapidly, the digital use divide is emerging as a serious problem. Australia is certainly no exception, with the aforementioned ABS data reporting only 55 per cent of Australian household in the lowest household income quintile are connected to the Internet.
Among Australia’s most desperate families, the trend is exaggerated. Research released today by Anglicare Victoria reveals more than 66 per cent of the organisation’s clients don’t have home Internet access, with many families citing its prohibitive cost as the major reason. Even those families who do have the Internet often say they have to forgo other essential items in order to pay for the connection.
So while children growing up in the remote village of Santiago Atitlan in Guatemala can be guaranteed a digital education, it’s not a given for children in Australia.
So what’s the big deal? For many Australians it may seem a bit rich to talk about Internet access as a ‘right’. But the concept of the right to Internet access has been around for a few years now. In 2009, France’s highest court declared broadband access to be a basic human right and Cuba, Estonia, Finland, Greece and Spain all have similar legislation. In 2012 the United Nations called on its members to ‘promote and facilitate access to the Internet’ for all people. Meanwhile Germany’s Federal Court of Justice just recently ruled that an Internet connection is a basic modern necessity.
On a world scale, Internet access is increasingly being officially recognised as a central, driving cultural and economic game-changer.
Education is the most obvious example. In Australia virtually all schools are now assimilating home Internet use into their educational programs via Internet sites like Mathletics and Reading Eggs. These programs work like a home tutor, tracking individual progress, setting appropriate questions for the student’s level of understanding and providing worked answers in a style of learning that has the potential to promote equality of opportunity, allowing individuals to progress at their own pace.
At the extreme end of the scale, many schools are now making it compulsory for their students to have access to a web enabled tablet computer, both at home and in the classroom. At this stage the trend is mostly limited to private schools but soon public schools will follow suit.
More generally speaking, Internet access is important for a child’s social confidence in an online space as well as their digital literacy. Put simply, in this day and age, a child who doesn’t learn to “read” technology in line with their peers is the modern equivalent of a child who couldn’t read a book 20 years ago. Familiarity with computers at a young age provides an essential foundation for future learning.
But it’s not just important for children. For the workers in the household an Internet connection is essential for access to jobs. In August, ANZ’s job advertisement series reported that an average of 128,779 jobs per week were advertised online across Australia. This compared to only 4,432 jobs advertised in newspapers. Clearly, if you’re a jobseeker, you need the Internet.
And then, consider the incredibly busy schedule of a single, working parent. They need to be able to use their online bank accounts, pay bills via BPAY, read emails from their child’s school or childcare and access their online Australia.gov account with Medicare and Centrelink details and letters. They also need to connect socially with their peers and support networks in the community, which they aren’t likely to have the time to do in person.
Without the Internet these parents – mostly women – can’t access the tools they need to make their lives easier and to support them in their roles nurturing the next generation.
Back in Guatemala, there was an opening event to coincide with the declaration of Internet access as a human right that was attended by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression, Frank La Rue (a Guatemalan national). His presence served as a reminder of the role of the Internet as a rights enabler.
In Australia too, the Internet is making it easier and faster for people from all walks of life to access information and services, and can go a long way towards straightening up the starting line. But as our schools, workplaces and essential services all move online, we must consider that for those who can’t afford the Internet, it’s an exclusionary process.
Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently announced a 60-day strategic review of the National Broadband Network providing the perfect opportunity to focus on this issue. The Government says cost will be a focus. It’s a start, but the greater challenge is to reframe the debate around Internet access.
Because it’s not about welfare – it’s about equal opportunity. Far from being the luxury it was 15 years ago, Internet access must be recognised as an essential service before digital literacy becomes the basis of a divide in wider opportunity.
It’s been a basic for a long time now. It needs to be treated like one.
About the author: Susan Wilson is a former Sky News Journalist, currently working as a freelance journalist and media officer for Anglicare Victoria. She has a Bachelor of Arts from Monash University, a Graduate Diploma of Journalism from RMIT and she's currently completing her Master of Economics at Melbourne University.