On 16 May 2011 the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, released a report acknowledging the internet as a fundamental human right.
The Rapporteur has reported that, as an extension of the right to freedom of expression, governments (and private bodies) must exercise a respect for the right to internet. The Rapporteur has suggested that there are two main components which serve to outline the nature of the right:
- Internet access; and
- Internet availability.
The report highlighted the importance of the internet as an aspect of the right to freedom of opinion and expression but also its vital importance as an enabling right that could be used to support and further all economic, social and cultural rights. The report went so far as to say that "[i]nternet boosts economic, social and political development, and contributes to the progress of humankind as a whole".
This acknowledgment of the right comes in the face of increasing threats to internet freedom. As seen in Egypt, states have taken radical decisions in restricting access, sometimes blocking access in its entirety.
The chief characteristics of internet communication include speed, worldwide reach and relative anonymity. When regulating the internet the Rapporteur has cautioned governments not to confuse political motives with national security imperatives. Recent examples of regulation have been disproportionate to the perceived threat and may be attributed to the recognition by governments of the power of the advanced free flow of information. Such responses are not supported by any measure of justifiable limitations in international or regional legal instruments. For example, the ‘three strikes' rules adopted by both France and the United Kingdom limited internet access to violators of intellectual property laws, in spite of adequate remedies to these contraventions already available in both civil and criminal laws in both states.
Of particular interest in relation to the right to internet, though not an aspect new to the enforcement of positive obligations in socio-economic rights, is the role of the public sector in assisting government in the furtherance of principles of universal access. Further, the peculiar nature of the internet to service providers means that unnecessary and unjustifiable interventions with the right has a direct consequence on the commercial interests of the private sector.
The Special Rapporteur's acknowledgment of the availability of internet as being an important aspect of the right to internet brings an interesting consideration for any future discourse on universal access in Africa. While resource limitations will obviously impede the development of universal access in Africa, it appears time that African governments' acknowledged how the internet could facilitate education and service delivery in rural areas - the benefits are not for the interests of wealthy citizens alone, but can instead improve the lives of even the most disenfranchised citizen due its low cost and capacity to reach even the most rural areas.