28th September marks the UN-designated International Day for Universal Access to Information (ATI), with focus this year given to the importance of the online space. It is an occasion to advocate greater protections for, and stronger implementation of, a right that is the lifeblood of quality journalism and an indicator of the health of democratic society. But on whose shoulders do such responsibilities fall?
With the unveiling of Google Search 25 years ago, access to information fundamentally changed for everyone with an internet connection. While it wasn’t the first attempt to organise the World Wide Web’s chaotic beginnings, the search engine’s arrival nonetheless provided the Internet Age with one of its early place markers: a ‘before’ and ‘after’ moment.
Organising the world’s information and making it universally accessible and useful has kept Google busy ever since. Over 60% of the world’s population – more than 5 billion people – now use the Internet daily. And while certainly not the only company out there trying to do so (despite what the U.S. Government alleges), Google alone processes over 8.5 billion search results a day.
It is an unprecedented development in such a short timescale. Pre-Search humanity may have been far from living in the Dark Ages, but the last quarter-century has seen a digitally enlightened era transform global society. Homo Interneticus now has the entirety of the world’s knowledge at its fingertips yet is free to spend much of its time insulting and enraging one another, photographing meals, and sharing funny cat videos.
The Internet Age, in all its guises, is squarely where we find ourselves, and while the immediacy and ease of available information is beyond any previous generation’s wildest imaginings, access to it is a long way from universal.
Falling short on ATI goals
2023 figures released by the World Data Lab under its Internet Poverty Index found that 15% of the global population – over a billion people – cannot afford a minimum mobile Internet package.
Even in countries with relatively high levels of internet penetration, the quality and speed of connectivity contributes to a digital divide that in many ways mirrors socioeconomic disparities existent in the physical world for generations – affecting, for example, how children learn in an increasingly online education environment: a factor that can determine future academic success and career-earning potential.
Similarly, research published in 2020 by the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Medical School found more than 41% of Medicare patients in the U.S. lacked access to a desktop or laptop computer with a high-speed internet connection at home, while almost 41% did not have a smartphone with a wireless data plan, and more than 26% didn’t have access to either. The research also found that “those less likely to have digital access were 85 or older, widowed, Black or Hispanic, enrolled in Medicaid, had a disability, or had a high school education or less.”
While there is clearly a huge amount of work still to be done on a very basic level to improve equity of digital access, simply ‘getting online’ can no longer be the sole end goal. By recreating inherent biases, offline prejudices and power imbalances, the online space (despite its infancy) has missed the opportunity to take on a significantly different form and tone than the physical world.
Namely, a more equal one.
A universal ATI framework that respects diversity and inclusion would have been the ideal starting point. Instead, a hardwired algorithm-led approach – deeply problematic, we now know – took root from the Internet’s early beginnings. Across search engines, newsfeeds, social media threads and into AI, this is the challenge we now desperately need to address.
It means that carefully developed universal principles aimed at defining political and human rights for all (the values underpinning democratic world order), have been largely abandoned faced with the reality of online conduct and behaviour. It poses significant questions about just what kind of digital world we are creating, and for whom.
A failure of politics and business
Like a 19th century land grab, the race for proprietary ownership in the online space has arguably led to the same mistakes that catalysed inequality and injustice in the building of the modern offline world. Instead of doing better, going beyond our terrestrial achievements – dreaming of more just and equal electric sheep – much of the digital world mirrors the worst elements we should have been trying our hardest to escape from.
And while much of it may spawn from good intentions to “do no evil,” the facts speak for themselves: the internet is not a nice place to be if you happen to go up against the dominant racial/religious/political/cultural zeitgeist, be a woman, a child, or identify as part of a minority group, etc., etc., etc.
With responsibility to set standards and ensure the proper functioning of the internet, both enablers and gatekeepers of the right to information – and incidentally all other human rights, translated to the online context – have, certainly on behalf of these people, failed miserably.
While such duties were predominantly ceded to the algorithm-enthused corporate interest a long time ago, playing catch-up and agreeing a way to do better has become the urgent challenge at the intersect of government, technology, and civil society. Navigating this requires a level of diplomacy for the digital age that is currently beyond the capacity of most.
For example, without a joined-up approach, efforts to regulate become problematic across many jurisdictions, particularly in those whose track records in the offline world do not suggest a light touch. The temptation to restrict and control digital space, rather than permit a framework that enables, echoes familiar struggles for freedom of expression, access to information, and press freedom.
And given the harm done up to this point to those at greatest risk of discrimination, it is difficult to see how retroactively applying a rights-based approach amounts to anything more than closing the stable door long after the horse has bolted.
Is it any wonder? With a dearth of knowledge at the highest political levels as to how the online world even works, never mind what basic rules it should follow and how these should be enforced, educating our policymakers becomes essential.
Even where they have attempted to blaze a trail into the great online unknown, many supposed ‘rights pioneers’ have been found unreliable and severely wanting in their commitments to responsibly governing access to knowledge and information online.
Recent investigations into the UK Government’s alleged systematic suppression of free speech online and exposure of its behaviour in tracking journalists who make freedom of information requests; the French President Macron’s recent call to block social media during civic unrest; and the Indian court decision in favour of unchecked state power in suspending opposition social media accounts, all point to the politicization of the online space and the weaponization of access to information.
Working in good faith to strengthen ATI rights when there is duplicity or simply a lack of political will to take the matter seriously requires convictions that are beyond solid. Zambians have been waiting 20+ years for the enactment of an Access to Information bill proposed in 2001. Implementing and financing such laws, when they finally do make it into statute, can be a minefield – just review Zimbabwe’s efforts.
Ask any newsroom, anywhere in the world, how often their requests for information go unanswered.
Resist the urge to restrict
Quasi-universal reliance on the internet also means the ability to control, limit, or rescind access to information – a basic human right – is concentrated in the hands of a very small few: those who own the switch, and those with the power to have the switch flicked.
Over recent decades the ability to shut down or censor the internet, enact sophisticated surveillance and spy on users has been added to the ever-expanding authoritarian toolbox, often with the complicity, if not the compliance of the very companies aiming to keep information flowing and conversations growing. It has led to a deep undermining of trust which, ironically, has fed the corporate and political machines in its own self-perpetuating way (fear and hate having been found to increase engagement).
Disproportionally targeting journalists and human rights defenders, women, and those who identify as belonging to groups at risk of discrimination, these digital predators have the goal of blocking access to information at all costs. They often produce deadly real-world repercussions. Tragically, this is the consequence of getting ATI wrong, and ceding its governance to belief in a business model and the benign nature of political actors.
Chronic underfunding, a lack of political will, and a groundswell of anti-intellectualism – not to mention a somewhat catastrophic fire – all befell the earliest attempt to archive human knowledge. While the decline and fall (and burning!) of the Great Library of Alexandria is said to have immeasurably set back advancements in the arts, culture, science, and technology we see the speed of progress in today’s Internet Age more than making up for what was lost.
While we hope today’s data custodians have invested in more robust fire protection, Classical antiquity’s mismanagement of human knowledge warns us that we cannot rely on the whims of power to guarantee access to knowledge and information that is in the public interest. It also teaches us that information determining how we live our lives is our fundamental right; access to it is not to be bartered, sold, or kept under lock and key, and that it is in all our interests to keep it this way.
The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of WAN-IFRA. It may be re-produced freely, with credit to the author.
More information on UNESCO events and deliberations around Universal Access to Information can be found here.