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Is Global Access to Information a Human Right?

Sabrina Tharani |

Everyone in the world will have access to the Internet by 2020. At least that’s what Google’s Eric Schmidt thinks.

“By the end of the decade” he says, “everyone on Earth will be connected.”

The flurry of comments, tweets and columnist reactions to this declaration ranged from complete awe to complete anger. True, countries like East Timor, Ethiopia and Burundi have virtually zero Internet penetration, but, then again, their supply of clean water, food, electricity and sanitation facilities are among the scarcest in the world as well. While I’m sure Schmidt wouldn’t deny these fundamental gaps in basic human needs, his message is bigger than that.

Global Internet access means universal access to information—something Schmidt considers a human right along with all the rest. He believes that nothing short of a biological virus can scale as quickly, efficiently or aggressively as technology platforms like the Internet, making the people who build and use it powerful too.

Consider the situation in North Korea: Internet access is only permitted with special authorization and is primarily used for government purposes. For the mass population, access to the global Internet is basically forbidden. If citizens of North Korea had open access to information, it would be a fundamentally different country as the current regime wouldn’t be able to survive the open exchange of ideas. As Schmidt wrote himself in a recent WSJ article, freedom of expression and critical thinking are uncomfortable ideas in a country where the “Respected Leader” is the “source of all information and where the penalty for defying him is the persecution of you and your family for three generations.” It’s just like the 2010 Tehran protests in Iran, where the demonstrations were so strongly fueled by the spread of information on the Internet that the government essentially shut it down.

What if a small farmer in Myanmar could Tweet for help when his children needed food, or a woman in the Congo could broadly advocate women’s rights? Not as unrealistic a proposition as you may think – it was just a few months ago the world sent a bullied 68 year old woman on vacation, through $645,000 donations online.

Recent MasterCard research found that seven in 10 global digital consumers view the Internet, specifically social networks, as an easy way to stay connected. While these are consumers with ready access to the Internet, the greater meaning mirrors Eric Schmidt’s all the same: connectivity changes lives.

Topics: Economic Outlook, Inclusion

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