As more people gain access to the internet, its diversity, reach and value increases. Therefore it follows that a central concern of civil society everywhere must be how affordable, inclusive and free the internet is. Individuals, institutions and organisations all over the world have embraced the internet as a platform for discourse, commerce, citizen engagement and, of course, political and social activism. Mobile phones reach even more people and their everyday use is often linked to the internet in some way or other.
Interaction between citizen and state has also been changed by this growth, in some ways positively, but in others, with new forms of exclusion resulting. E-government services can be inaccessible and alienating to those without the necessary access or literacy. Even the notion of citizenship has been transformed, with many people identifying themselves as citizens of the network (or netizens).
Recognition of the internet’s critical role as “a key means by which individuals can exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, as guaranteed by article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” was clearly stated in the June 2011 report of Frank la Rue, Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion to the UN Human Rights Council. He went on to say:
“The right to freedom of opinion and expression is as much a fundamental right on its own accord as it is an ‘enabler’ of other rights, including economic, social and cultural rights, such as the right to education and the right to take part in cultural life and to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications, as well as civil and political rights, such as the rights to freedom of association and assembly. Thus, by acting as a catalyst for individuals to exercise their right to freedom of opinion and expression, the internet also facilitates the realisation of a range of other human rights.”
Civil society groups and activists are constantly expanding their use of the internet and other information and communication technologies (ICTs) such as SMS and mobile apps to organise and advocate for social justice. But this explosion of creativity takes place in the face of growing threats to the free and open nature of the internet both by states and business interests. In the last few years issues have emerged that touch on freedom of expression, freedom of association, privacy, censorship, security, access to knowledge and the right to information. These new forms of violations of fundamental human rights result from expedient decisions by states and non-state actors that impact on ICT users in this way, and are similar in intent to violations experienced in traditional media.
Civil society must be involved in how the internet and other ICTs are regulated and governed, at global, regional and national levels to ensure it remains a tool for empowerment. The next few years will be critical as both states and large corporations try to consolidate control.
Trends in access to infrastructure
The most significant trend is increased access to the internet through mobile handsets and the evolution of mobile technology. Recent research demonstrates that the mobile phone is transforming access to the internet, content creation and communication in diverse ways in many parts of the world.
Additional functionality of rich feature phones (with some having limited means to access the internet) and smartphones (essentially a small, hand held computer) has resulted in high levels of user-generated content. Citizens can author their own media, take pictures of what is happening around them and post almost real-time text accounts of events that they are witnessing. This has had the effect of giving space to a diversity of voices and issues that historically may have been ignored.
A critical issue at hand that civil society should be more aware of is the digital switchover (DSO). Essentially, the DSO is the transition from analogue to digital technology for the delivery of television and radio broadcast services. This transition will produce a gain in efficiency, which means that a fraction of the amount of electromagnetic spectrum is required to deliver the same amount of content. The costs associated with the DSO are significant, and are particularly burdensome for poor and unemployed people. Every householder who owns a television will need to either upgrade their television or purchase a set top box in order to receive digital television broadcasts.
But there are huge potential public interest benefits such as an opportunity to lower barriers to local content production through, for example, enabling new dedicated local language channels, while simultaneously increasing broadcast quality. Another huge benefit would be an increase in internet connectivity through frequency being made available for wireless broadband. In short, the DSO represents a massive one-time opportunity to enable more pervasive and affordable access through technological efficiencies, which will permit more diverse ownership, competition and innovation in both the broadcast and telecommunications sectors. If mismanaged, the consequences could exacerbate the current digital divide and further consolidate the ownership and control of current commercial and political interest groups in the broadcast sector.