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Internet access as a basic human right

Monday, 21 April 2008 — by

Society and the Internet are strange creatures; both amorphous, malleable to gradual, yet surprisingly rigid to sudden change, while being prone to a variety of sociocultural ills, but thankfully resilient and apparently self-healing…

One could argue that the Internet is an extension to society, which I’d agree with in principal, but that’s another story.

As our society weakens and fades in the streets and housing estates / projects around Britain and the US, with people living as strangers rather than as neighbours within communities, the shadow of our former society is cast upon silicon, found in whispered streams of ones & zeros, in this digital realm we call the Internet.

These electronic friendships and communities exist and thrive, spanning nations, borders and time zones.

Identifying this loss of community in our villages, towns and cities, society works to compensate. Take for example Greater Manchester Police here in England and their GMP Updates application for Facebook.

On the one hand, this is a fantastic move by Greater Manchester Police, assuming their efforts turn into something meaningful over time. While on the other hand, shouldn’t these initiatives be coming out as mandatory directives from central government?

Maybe I’m being too harsh, but if the British and US governments want to engage the public on as many levels and through as many mediums and channels as possible, then a Social Network like Facebook is the place to be.

“The application appears to be the first of its type in the UK (I’m not sure about the world, but it could be a contender for that title). Quite who developed the app is as yet uknown, but I’ll update when I find out.”

So notes Mike Butcher in his article on the GMP Update, over on TechCrunch.

There’s a lot our governments could do to not only engage the public at large, but to empower us. The governments of the US and Britain sit atop a huge stack of databases of all kinds, containing a mesmerizing array of knowledge.

These governmental silos of knowledge aren’t readily mined for the wealth they contain. But, with a rich blend of the right tools available right now:

“Imagine being able to meld your Workstream with Government 2.0 databases, pooling their data intermixed with the public reactions to the data over time.

So you’re not just building Workstreams, but you’re also providing Workstreams that have an open access element that allows people to subscribe to information (distinctly different to data, trust me) which is pre-qualified in terms of being partly or wholly responded to and voted upon by you, the people.”

It may not be the public themselves using this data, but rather agencies, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and public bodies, placed in a better position to repurpose this data for those that would benefit the most.

Internet — exclusive or inclusive?

However, this digital society has an unfortunate side effect, in that there’s a certain exclusivity, where the required qualifications are computer proficiency and access to the Internet. For those less fortunate than you & I, such things are a luxury.

Might we present an argument for Internet access as being a new basic human right? Some have already considered this very idea:

“Internet access is now reportedly held in as high a regard as freedom of speech, fair trials and equal opportunities.

New research says that almost half of people believe the internet has influenced existence to such a degree that the world would not be the same without it.”

This research is particular to Britain, but I’d wager that the findings would be broadly mirrored in the US.

Sadly, in some circumstances, what we end up with is an electronic extension to the “Have’s & Have Not’s” scenario of real-world society — those with access to the Internet and those who do not.

In this scenario, we find ourselves staring at situation not entirely dissimilar to Medieval Europe, where the knowledge of the time lay in books written in Latin, for the most part beyond the comprehension of the illiterate populous.

“The internet is a reflection of our society,.. If we do not like what we see in that mirror the problem is not to fix the mirror, we have to fix society.”Vint Cerf, ‘the father of the Internet’

OK, I’m being lazy here. I’ve used this well-worn quote plenty of times, but it’s still valid. For now, I’ll side-step issues of information abuse, anonymity and Internet censorship, those are topics in their own right, which I’ve written about before.

For the most part, the intentions of the average person using the Internet are well intentioned.

Charity begins in the Home directory

While the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) Project flexes its philanthropic muscles abroad, there are similar problems right here, in the so-called developed 1st world nations.

However, despite interest from various quarters for a commercially-available version of the XO laptop, so far Nicolas Negraponte has resisted. But I think Negraponte et al are overlooking a genuine opportunity for doing even greater good:

“… even if they were to offer a double-priced version of the XO to the western public, there’s the non-too-trivial task of sales & distribution.

The damn thing would pretty much market itself, but for the One Laptop Per Child to function and focus on its primary goal — that of providing a laptop to children in developing countries for free…”

The US and British governments can’t entirely foot the bill for providing Internet access for every child. Having the OLPC Project extended to the rest of the world, funded by both the public and private sector, the potential benefits have to outweigh pissing off Microsoft and their legions of OEMs, surely?

And if businesses are serious about securing their own futures, then they ought to consider sponsoring schools in deprived areas, to encourage education amongst a class of people that could well be their future employees.

Yes, classes still exist, regardless of what people might be telling you. I’m of working class stock and proud of that.

Given the social and economic depravation we have in Britain and the US, if the Internet is to be seriously considered as a genuine human right, then what’s wrong with an OLPC Project partly funded by the private sector closer to home?

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Nick James → Monday, 21 April 2008 @ 22:18 BDT

Nicely put Wayne. It’s a sad fact that it pays for government and their drinking buddies in big business to keep an underclass there as a warning to anybody getting a little too bolshie of where they’ll end up. It keeps wages down and the working classes neutered. Sorry to go all political.
Your post actually reminds me of what my old man used to say about why we should have respect for books, because even as close back as the start of the last century they were still stopping us from reading.
Great sentiment, fella, and one I wholly support.

Wayne Smallman → Monday, 21 April 2008 @ 22:47 BDT

Hi Nick! This article — much like the one for last Monday — started out as one thing, but then gradually transmogrified into something else.

I think I managed to remain more thematic this time…

Megapixels → Thursday, 1 May 2008 @ 22:43 BDT

Interesting article. I agree that the internet is becoming a basic human right. Certainly a long way off for some parts of the world, which is the unfortunate part. The books in medieval times is an interesting analogy. Even books are still a technology that haven’t permeated to all people in all cultures. I wonder how many children in developing countries today have never seen or held a book? If we’ve had since medieval times to solve that problem and haven’t, you have to wonder how long it will take till we’re all connected digitally?

Wayne Smallman → Thursday, 1 May 2008 @ 23:16 BDT

Hi Christopher, thanks for the comment!

Knowledge is a precious thing, clearly dangerous in the hands of some.

If we choose to look at information is a weapon, then we can see the truly disruptive power widely known information.

Take for example formal education for the working classes in 18th century England, or the “Weapons Of Mass Destruction” fiasco by the US & Britain in Iraq.

Both offer up the positives and the negatives of information.

The internet is not and cannot be evil, if we choose to accept for a moment such a thing as evil even exists.

The internet is broadly analogous to a receptical into which all (or certainly most) knowledge is contained, from which we as individuals employ to match our own ends and agendas, be they good or bad…

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