Internet Equality: A Human Rights Issue?

I had decided to spend this past Thanksgiving by myself at home with my computer. While waiting for my episode to load, I wondered to myself, “Why is the Internet so slow? Doesn’t my Internet plan guarantee high speed and unlimited data?” These few questions directed me to some episodes from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj that addressed Net Neutrality (Net Neutrality I YouTube and Net Neutrality II YouTube) and “Why Your Internet Sucks,” respectively. Although I still had to wait about five minutes or so for the video to constantly stop buffering, that dissatisfaction paled in comparison to everything I was about to learn, particularly how companies will slow connection speeds so people would have to pay more for faster access.

An image of a map with the internet also embedded into it, representing the worldwide access to the internet.
History of the Internet – joannazajakala. Source: joannazajakala.wordpress.com. Creative Commons

So, before you continue reading, let’s define some of the basic terms used in this article:

  • Net Neutrality – The principle that ISPs should provide internet access to all people regardless of source or the type of website being accessed.
  • ISPs – Internet Service Providers. These are the people you pay to give you access to the internet.
  • VPNs – Virtual Private Networks. These are private networks that will give you privacy and anonymity when using a public network. They “mask your IP address so that your online actions are virtually untraceable.”
  • FCC – The Federal Communications Commission. They “regulate interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable in all 50 states.”

 

An image of a sphere representing the internet, but with a cross over it.
Clipart – No Global Internet. Source: openclipart.org, Creative Commons

 

History of Net Neutrality

Coined by Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor, Net Neutrality called for all ISPs to treat all content equally. Wu had the concern that “broadband providers’ tendency to restrict new technologies would hurt innovation in the long term, and called for anti-discrimination rules.” He reasoned this because if providers were able to choose which content will be available for users, then newer companies would never have the chance to break out and grow. Had this happened in the mid-2000s with video streaming, then sites like Netflix, YouTube, Vimeo, etc. would have never gotten the light of day and be prevalent sources of information throughout our daily lives.

In the early 2000s, ISPs started to ban people from using VPNs and letting them set up their own Wi-Fi routers. Subsequently, the “FCC fined Madison River, a service provider, for blocking phone calls over the internet, ordered Comcast to stop slowing down connections, and caught Apple for blocking Skype calls at the request of AT&T.”

In 2015, after much deliberation, the FCC approved Net Neutrality by a 3-2 vote, replacing a ruling in 2014 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit finding that found the FCC did not have enough regulatory power over broadband. After the resulting vote, Gabe Rottman, the ACLU’s legislative counsel, praised how “this [was] a victory for free speech, plain and simple. The Internet, the primary place where Americans exercise their right to free expression, remains open to all voices and points of view.”

However, when power changes hands, so does previous rulings. With a Republican-controlled FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai effectively repealed Net Neutrality. They removed the Title II designation, which classified the Internet as a Public Utility, preventing the FCC from putting rules in its place if desired. Now, without these rules in place, ISPs can effectively prioritize specific content and block others, with the only caveat being that ISPs must publicly state that they will do so.

 

An image of a highway, but with a crowded lane for the public, but with a fast lane for corporations.
The Economic case that net neutrality was always fundamentally good for the internet. Source: medium.com, Creative Commons

The Case for Net Neutrality

On Last Week Tonight, John Oliver opens his segment briefing his audience on the foundation of Net Neutrality while also talking about the impact his first Net Neutrality episode had on the FCC’s ability to regulate the open Internet. He then pans to the then-new and now current chairman of the FCC, Trump appointee Ajit Pai. While he presented himself as fun with his oversized coffee mug, Oliver notes how Pai was a “former lawyer for Verizon” and how he believes that due to Title II, companies can no longer invest further into broadband networks. Oliver then responds to that claim by stating that “Title II is the most solid legal foundation we have right now for a strong enforceable net neutrality protections.” While also roasting Pai with his own larger coffee mug, Oliver calls upon the people watching his episode to go to the FCC website and write comments under the heading “Restoring Internet Freedom.” Created in April of 2017, this docket had a current filing of 23,952,756 comments, with people still commenting more than 2 years after the fact. He then concludes with his call to action below:

John Oliver: “I’m calling upon all of you, the internet’s time-wasters and trouble-makers, to join me once more in just five to ten minutes of none effort, I need you to do this once more under the breach my friends, simply go to this URL and tell the FCC to preserve net neutrality and Title II. Once again commenters, America needs you to rise, or more accurately, remain seated in front of your computer screen to this occasion. So please, fly my pretties, fly once more! Fly away!”

Net Neutrality, Internet Equality, and Human Rights

So how exactly does Net Neutrality and internet equality relate to human rights? Are they even remotely related?

With the repealing of net neutrality, you risk losing your first amendment rights guaranteed by the Constitution, being the right to freedom of expression, while also losing your right to access information. The United Nations Human Rights Council also had passed a resolution for the “promotion, protection, and enjoyment of human rights on the internet” while also condemning a country that disrupts internet access for its civilians. ISPs, such as Comcast, AT&T, Spectrum, and more, would limit websites that cannot pay to prioritize their content, allowing big companies to have more content allowed. This eventually would lead to a restriction in the amount of information accessed and have the internet, as Human Rights Watch phrases it, “reduced to social media giants and shopping websites, and we could lose equal access to all the little random, odd corner that make the internet the magical (and weird) place it is today.”

Imagine that. There might be a time soon where all you could access are big-named websites like Apple or Microsoft for technology, Facebook and Twitter and Tik Tok for social media, and Amazon and Walmart for shopping. If you think about it, Tim Wu was right. Limiting other companies’ chance to make a splash to a larger audience just because they did not have enough money to be put in the fast lane, to have their content prioritized.

While watching Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj, I noticed how Minhaj begins by admitting to the fact that the internet is addictive, rolling through a series of clips of news commentators claiming that it is the digital heroin of our age. He then calls out how the internet is something that we take for granted, despite there being millions of Americans with no access to it.

Hasan Minhaj: “The Internet is an essential utility. It’s like electricity of water”

Minhaj then pans over to a news story about Coachella Valley in California, where routers were placed on buses and parked in spots with no connectivity. Due to that, the graduation rate went up by 8%, helping more students get “on the road to success.” This comes with the fact that about 3,000,000 (three million) students, about 17 percent of all U.S. students, don’t have access to the internet at home.

The United Nations also declared internet access as a human right back in 2011, by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression. With 2/3 of Syria’s internet being cut at the time, the United Nations also declared that disconnecting people from the internet is also a violation of international law, which just goes to show how important internet access is in the world in this day and age. And as of October of 2019, there were about 4.48 billion active internet users in the world, about 58 percent of the global population.

Overall, with the restriction of internet access in the world, and more specifically in the United States, we must understand the implications restricted internet access has on the amount and type of information available. Although we might take our internet access for granted, we must be aware that allowing these companies to have limited regulations on what content to prioritize, restricting access to other sites would prevent equal access to information, a violation of our human rights. Therefore, while it may be that the future seems bleak, we have a responsibility to petition and encourage our elected officials to expand broadband access and to regulate the companies that provide users with that internet.

A futuristic view of a cityline.
How The Death of Net Neutrality Could Be the Death of Blockchain. Source: medium.com, Creative Commons

Digital Citizenship: The Good, The Bad, & The Role of the Internet

Picture of hand in a web of technological devices
Communication Internet, by Pixabay, Creative Commons

In the early history of democracies, political voting was inherently simple: it was the communication of approval or disapproval of policies, platforms, and so on. Dissention was normal, but the partisan politics we are familiar with today were almost nonexistent. Issues that one politician had with another’s proposal were addressed in a direct, timely manner. In terms of the general public, everyone was essentially getting the same information via the same means – the printed press. This meant everyone was getting the same information at the same time; there may have been differences in interpretations, but everyone was reading the same headline as their neighbor. Today, we have thousands of media vying for our attention on many topics, especially politics. Whether from CNN, MSNBC, NPR, or Fox News, we are bombarded with information on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and other social media.

So, how did we abruptly shift from getting news from the same medium to getting news from every angle? The answer is simple: The Internet. The Internet completely transformed how we receive and access all media of information, including political information; politicians can directly speak to voters who then participate in the political arena without leaving their home. Technological advancements in communication play an important role in influencing electoral behavior, easing the accessibility of political information. The Internet makes it easier to find out a candidate’s platform, what they want to work for, and their history. By using the internet in this way, people are engaging in what is now known as “digital citizenship.” A “digital citizen” is one who engages in democratic affairs in conventional ways by using an unconventional medium such as their laptop or smartphone.

The media’s role in elections and politics has grown exponentially since the 1960s. Prior to television, presidential candidates relied on the radio, think of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s fireside chats, and other interpersonal means to communicate with voters: caucuses, party conventions, town halls, and so on. As technology progressed and television became widely accessible, reliance on interpersonal connections diminished and reliance upon the media grew. Power transitioned from party leaders and bosses to the candidates – as they were able to take control of their campaign, so long as their actions were worthy enough to make headlines. This transfer of power once benefitted only the candidates; however, now the power resides with the media: for they decide what suits their audiences, and who America sees.

This transfer of power greatly impacts our political processes. When politicians are their own bosses, they are able to disregard societal “norms” and use populist rhetoric to enhance their performance in the political realm. Kellener asserts President Trump is the “master of media spectacle”; using populism to make headlines and instill fear into voters more susceptible to fear- and anger-based messaging, he was able to “use the disturbing underside of American politics to mobilize his supporters”.

Picture of various social media icons
Online Internet Icon, Pixaby, Creative Commons

The Good

ISTE.org layers the ‘digital’ components onto the definition of a conventional good citizen:

A good citizen… A good digital citizen…
Advocates for equal human rights for all Advocates for equal digital rights for all
Treats others with respect Seeks to understand all perspectives

Does not steal or damage others’ property

Respects digital privacy, intellectual property, and other rights of people online
Communicates clearly, respectfully, and with empathy Communicates and acts with empathy for others’ humanity via digital channels
Speaks honestly and does not repeat unsubstantiated rumors Applies critical thinking to all online sources, including fake news or advertisements
Works to make the world a better place Leverages technology to advocate for and advance social causes
Protects self and others from harm Is mindful of physical, emotional, and mental health while using digital tools
Teams up with others on community projects Leverages digital tools to collaborate with others
Projects a positive self-image Understands the permanence of the digital world and proactively manages digital identity

All of the characteristics of a “good digital citizen” may be applied to participating in democracy via the Internet. If everyone had access to the internet, more people would be able to register to vote as well as discussing and engaging in the political arena. If we seek to understand more perspectives, we could combat the political “bubbles” that we either choose to live in or are placed into by Facebook filtering your newsfeed depending on your online habits. If we used technology to advocate for social causes such as voter disenfranchisement, we could get more people engaged with our democracy.

Being a “good” digital citizen transcends holding personal values – it includes the pursuit of equality for all. We are lucky enough to live in a country where digital citizenship is accessible for most, but we are doing no justice by those who cannot access it by not utilizing this new form of citizenship.

 

The Bad

The era of digital citizenship is a result of the rapid spread in access to the Internet. If you have access to the Internet in America, you have the opportunity to register to vote (given that you meet the proper requirements set by your state), to research political platforms and to engage with others to discuss politics. Political participation (not exclusive to voting) has increased – people are engaging more in more discussions on every form of media; however, these discussions may not always be beneficial or productive. Kurst says, due to our emotionally charged atmosphere in the US, it is very easy (and very typical) for conversations surrounding politics escalate to attacks on opposing values. It is easy to rely strictly on what you are told from your favorite news source or directly from a politician and regurgitate the rhetoric, but it is vital to our unity as a society to fact check your information, and respectfully listen to the “other side.”

In today’s political climate, virtually everything is politicized – including our social media. We live in our “red bubbles” or “blue bubbles” and disassociate from anyone who may be on the other side. Thompson argues this is normal; we seek homogeneity in our marriages, workplaces, neighborhoods, and peer groups. However, when it comes to politics and the Internet, we are allowed to pretend like those without similar interests do not exist. When we ostracize a group of people and those people feel as though they are not being represented, we see members of the Republican party proclaiming they are the “silent majority,” which was a galvanizing force behind their voter turnout in 2016. By devaluing another side’s beliefs, we are dehumanizing those who hold them. This causes anger, frustration, and retaliation – all of which that may take place in the digital or physical realms. We cannot abandon our fellow Americans simply because we disagree; we have to realize the differences we have are much less than the commonalities we share.

The polarization of the two parties in America today discredits many media outlets. 47% of conservatives said they get their news exclusively from Fox News; while liberals get theirs from a more diverse set of news. Conservatives and liberals alike see anything that does not reflect their values as “biased”, in fact, members of society gravitate to information that reaffirms their beliefs and intentionally avoid information that contradicts said beliefs, according to Drs. Rouhana and Bar-Tal. This creates a biased interpretation of the news – information that is consistent with already-held beliefs are interpreted as fact and support for whichever side of the argument the reader/viewer ascribes to. As a result, Americans question the validity of news sources that contradict that of their personal beliefs. The crossroads of political polarization and declining trust in our media outlets is where fake news exists. Truth has become a relative term and is often manipulated by an ideology, not fact.

How can we fix the political polarization tearing at the social fabric of American society? Establishing trust “across the aisle” seems like a hopeless cause in today’s America. When asked how to “pop” the political bubbles we live in, Gerson claims, “[the] cause is not hopeless, because the power of words to shape the human spirit is undeniable. These can be words that belittle, diminish and deceive. Or they can ring down the ages about human dignity. They can also allow us, for a moment, to enter the experiences of others and widen, just a bit, the aperture of our understanding. On the success of this calling much else depends.”  The solution to diminishing this polarization is to listen – listen and realize the other person you are disagreeing with possess the same humanity you do, and this humanity should be respected.

@ symbol with American symbols
News Internet, by Max Pixel, Creative Commons

Digital Citizenship and Human Rights

Marginalized populations have always struggled to get their voices heard. Without active engagement in democracy, minorities struggle to achieve full citizenship. The Internet and digital citizenship have worked together to diminish this obstacle faced by minorities. Social movements such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, and even the Arab Spring began and spread with the assistance of the Internet. Digital citizenship is linked to creating online communities to which people who struggle “fitting in” with their physical environment can find a home.

Using the Internet, citizens are easily mobilized on issues that concern them, whether domestic or international. They are able to pressure politicians to take actions against human rights violations and assist organizations doing field work where an injustice is present. For example, we are able to donate financially to the organizations making an effort to abolish the attacks on the LGBTQ+ community currently taking place in Chechnya, Russia. By being aware of it and all the other injustices taking place, we are able to assist in the resistance and make a difference in a way we could not have 10 years ago thanks to the Internet.

There are those who choose to not engage in politics in any shape or form, and there are those who use the Internet exclusively for political reasons. Wherever you fall within that spectrum, it is easy to agree that the polarization we have in America today is an issue that needs proper attention. It starts at the individual level: listening to what others who are different have to say, diversifying your news sources, and being open to disagreement. We must break out of our “bubbles” and not allow the influence of the Internet to shape our values for us.