Internet Must Be Free and Accessible Now More Than Ever

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Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), states: “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.” Section 32 adds “The promotion, protection and enjoyment of human rights on the Internet.”

Although this addendum was completed in the summer of 2016, it’s clear that its implementation is severely lacking; with 21 million people still without access to the internet in the United States, and over half the entire population lacking access to high-speed internet. This has continued to be true for many reasons, including poor infrastructure in many rural areas, monopolization, and steadily increasing costs for the same services.

More to the point, the digital divide disproportionately affects rural areas, African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans on tribal lands. This should unfortunately come to no surprise, as people of color have historically been excluded from access to housing, food, education, health, and just about every other social service ostensibly available to all Americans. Internet service providers deliver internet on a neighborhood level, so access to services is determined not just by income but also by where one is able to live.

In 2016, for example, AT&T was shown to have withheld fiber-enhanced broadband improvements from most Cleveland neighborhoods with high poverty rates.

Now, In a time where COVID-19 has pushed many to work from home, this disparity is more pronounced than ever before. As public libraries, schools, and other internet-providing institutions are shutting down, many families will be forced to weather the lockdown without access to critical information, let alone for online entertainment, communication, or work.

A New York City family shelter has no Wi-Fi and 175 school-age children, only 15 of whom have laptops. City schools are sending some kids tablets equipped with internet service. But Estrella Montanez, who runs the shelter, worries that kids will have trouble managing remote work. On Navajo Nation, the country’s largest Native American reservation, it’s common to see people sitting in their vehicles at night outside local government centers, fast-food restaurants and grocery stores to connect to Wi-Fi.

Some Internet Service Providers, like Comcast, who has spent over $30 million a year lobbying in Congress (against, amongst many things, Net Neutrality), have now starting using funds to relax data restrictions, offer free service for a limited period, suspend disconnections, and hook up new customers in response to COVID-19 lockdowns. But this is too little, and very much too late.

As many millions of students now either rely on online classes from teachers working in their own homes or their parents adapting curriculum they found online, it’s clear that if we understand education as a vital and universal service, so too is access to the internet.

Currently, the FCC has not made any official move towards securing access to the internet as a free public service. Ajit Pai, the Chairman of the FCC, has instead urged internet service providers to take the “Keep Americans Connected” pledge. Companies that take the pledge promise they won’t disconnect customers for nonpayment, will waive late fees, and will open Wi-Fi hot spots to the general public.

More than 300 companies have signed the pledge, which asks for a 60-day commitment. But it’s not clear whether the companies will take these steps, as there is no way to enforce the pledge.