One of the most sought and used mode of communication is internet. A decade ago Internet connectivity may have been considered a luxury, but today it has become a necessity. It’s been several years since France has made access to Internet a human right. Finland has gone a step further and mandated access to a minimum of 1Mbps Internet connection a legal right to its population of five million. The minimum required bandwidth is proposed to be bumped up to 100 Mbps by 2015.
Information and communication technologies have spread across India over the last decade, with 965.52 million phone users and 164.81 million internet users which is the third-largest absolute number of users worldwide. With some of cities of India being WIFI enabled, it is a great start to make a right to internet access as a legal right in India.
The internet presence is reaching into every aspect of people’s lives in India in education, health, and agriculture. The internet revolution first made a substantial difference in the lives of citizens when peasants, farmers and landowners of Rajasthan raised their voices demanding the ability to access land records directly through internet. The system was inculcated in many other states. E-Governance in various departments presently has enabled many citizens across the country to use government services at the click of a button.
Right to Internet: Global Perspective
The United Nations has officially declared internet access as a right which has been affirmed by 47 nations across the world. Recent developments at the international level in respect of the ‘right to access the Internet’ include, as part of the Millennium Development Goals, a formal target calling upon States ‘in consultation with the private sector to make available the benefits of new technologies, especially information and communications’.
The recommendations of the United Nations 2003 World Summit on the Information Society reflect the need for internet as a medium for enforcement of fundamental right of expression. The Plan of Action adopted at that Summit included that States ‘promote research and development to facilitate accessibility of information communication technologies (ICTs) for all, including disadvantaged, marginalized and vulnerable groups.’
The principles adopted at the summit emphasise on ‘Full inclusion’ that would extend beyond mere access rights, and would include initiatives to build confidence and security in the use of the Internet. In practice, this could include Governments establishing ‘sustainable multi-purpose community public access points’ and providing affordable or free Internet access to their citizens
Some of initiatives in this regard are-
- the ‘One Laptop Per Child’ project (supported by the United Nations Development Programme), which aims to spread the availability of the Internet into developing countries (currently this is being progressively implemented in countries such as Uganda and Rwanda);
- the Indian Government’s ‘Public-kiosks’ programme;
- the Brazilian Government’s ‘Computers for All’ program offering subsidies for the purchasing of computers.
Right to Internet Access: A Necessity
In the 21st century, Internet has become a central part of everyday life for its 2.4 billion users worldwide.The Internet has revolutionised the way people interact and exercise their freedom of expression and information as well as related fundamental rights. Internet access hence facilitates the realisation of cultural, civil and political rights.
A right is defined as a power, privilege, demand, or claim possessed by a particular person by virtue of law. The idea of internet as a right is not new. While there have been debates about considering the right to internet access a necessity given all the other problems that developing and least developed countries face, a celebrated author rightly pointed out that ‘it’s unrealistic to ask that everyone wait until hospitals are built in every corner of their respective countries before being able to access Internet that comes at a reasonable cost and functions at a reasonable speed’. Hence internet as a right facilitates the inviolable right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19 (1)(a) of Constitution of India. The hon’ble Supreme Court in Maneka Gandhi v. Union of India, (AIR 1978 SC 597) held that the freedom of speech and expression has no geographical limitation and it carries with it the right of a citizen to gather information and to exchange thoughts with others not only in India but abroad as well. This was at the time when no one had ever thought internet will become a borderless phenomenon. Similarly in Secretary, Ministry of Information and Broadcasting vs. Cricket Association of Bengal ( 1995 AIR 1236) it was held that every citizen has a fundamental right to impart as well as receive information through the electronic media. A broader interpretation of “electronic media” can definitely mean Internet as well.
Need for Digital Empowerment
The problem of digital divide will diminish if Governments ensure that all members of society are able to access the opportunities afforded by information and communications technology (ICT) use. Concerted action by state and non-state players will be necessary to help India achieve an inclusive internet transformation.
Digital Empowerment refers to the ability to use the wealth of resources in computing and the internet to learn, communicate, innovate, and enhance wealth—to move from being a digital novice to a digital professional or innovator. An effective Digital Inclusion strategy provides a path to full participation in a digital society.
The recent approval of the Digital India Programme by Union cabinet, aims at achieving digital empowerment. Digital India intends to connect all gram panchayats by broadband Internet, promote e-governance, and transform India into a connected knowledge economy.
However it is not only important to provide individuals and organisations with computer and internet access and the skills to use these tools competently, but also to ensure that society as a whole recognises the importance of overcoming digital inequality which is the key to accomplish digital empowerment
Lack of Infrastructure
Though India has resources to achieve the enforcement of this right, the lack of infrastructure is an impediment to the same. The cost of Internet connectivity in India is considerably high. Considering the power of information technology in this nation and a rather impressive consumer base, it is incredible as to how the cost per Mb is still relatively expensive, when compared to the First World countries that possess just a fraction of India’s connected users. Such tabs on bandwidth consumption are pitiful in an age where video services are considered the cornerstone of the Internet revolution. Hence there is a gap that has to be filled prior to declaration of right to internet as a legal right in India
India scores high on availability of human and financial capital for the internet ecosystem, but it rates poorly on internet infrastructure, engagement, ease of internet entrepreneurship and e-governance. The indispensable right to internet is not very far from its enforcement in India after infrastructural modifications and digital empowerment.
Author: Sushmita Ravi | Image from here
 URL: <www.nytimes.com/2011/04/28/technology/28internet.html?_r=2&partner=rss&emc=rss>
 TRAI figures as of March 31, 2013
 The right to Internet access Report 1 Committee on Culture, Science, Education and Media ,Parlaimentary Assembly Council of Europe http://assembly.coe.int/ASP/Doc/XrefViewPDF.asp?FileID=20535&Language=EN