Right to Internet in Covid Era: The Digital Poverty
By: Sanskrati Jain* |
During this pandemic, the internet has become an integral part of our lives. Everything has shifted to an online medium, be it education, business, trade, social functions, political socialization, or healthcare services. Having internet access is no longer a luxury or choice, it has become an indispensable thing. This unexpected transition wasn’t so smooth for a developing country like India because more than half of the population lacks access to the internet and electronic gadgets, like smartphones or personal computers. In this digital era, the internet can prove to be a more powerful tool than ever before. The elderly people, the urban poor, and those in remote areas find themselves marginalized and segregated because of their inability to navigate the digital world. They are even being deprived of their various human rights, including freedom of speech and expression, the right to education and information, the right to work, the right to access healthcare, the right to live with dignity, etc. With this all-pervasive digital divide in our country, can’t we ask the government to protect the fundamental right of the marginalized to access the internet, which has the potential to minimize the violation of other fundamental rights in these times of a pandemic, and end this "Digital Poverty"?
Lifeline for People and Democracy
This digital poverty has real-life consequences and for a developing country like ours, it can be catastrophic in terms of human life, economy, human dignity, etc. Having access to the internet means the ability to gain information, innovation, availability of finance and entrepreneurship, and employment opportunities. The internet can help us in safeguarding other fundamental rights as well. That’s why internet connectivity to the remotest areas has been the agenda of the government. In fact, India has been one of the leading promoters of digitalisation to steer growth across a range of sectors, as evidenced by programmes such as Digital India, Bharat Net, and the government pitching for everything online. But for a huge country and more illiterate population like ours, it is a cumbersome and time taking process, even now more than half of the population don’t have access to the internet. According to the fifth National Family Health Survey (NFHS) released in 2020, less than four out of ten women in urban India and three out of ten women in rural India have ever used the Internet. The report underscores a significant gender divide and rural-urban incongruity in Internet usage in 22 states and union territories of the country. All these statistics and data show that along with the global pandemic, society is also facing a digital class oppression, which is a potential threat to starve the marginalised section even for the basic amenities in these challenging times.
United Nations Human Rights Council (hereinafter referred to as UNHRC) has understood the significance of having this right, as it can have an impact on people’s lives and their ancillary rights. And in 2016, a non-binding resolution was passed recognizing access to the internet as a basic human right, mentioned under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (hereinafter referred to as UDHR). This far-sighted view of UNHRC didn’t have a great impact pertaining to the fact it is a “soft law” derived from Article 19 of UDHR, as for its non-compliance the nation-states do not face any significant penalties, as opposed to a “hard law”. This pandemic has sought an affirmation of the idea of this agency of the UN and also exposed the limited approach of the UN towards the right to access the internet.
Recognising Internet Access as Fundamental Right
In 2019, Hon’ble High Court of Kerala explicitly held, in the case of Faheema Shirin R.K. v. State of Kerala (hereinafter referred to as Faheema) that right to the internet is a right protected under Article 21, and can be brought within the ambit of Right to Privacy and Right to Education. This commendable and progressive judgement was a giant leap forward by Justice P.V. Asha because she clearly proclaimed internet access to be a fundamental right and, with this, Kerala became the first state to declare the Right to Internet as a fundamental right. Furthermore, with the pandemic outbreak last year, the state government of Kerala recognized the importance of this right and launched an ambitious project Kerala Fibre Optic Network (K-FON) which envisages to provide quality bandwidth internet free of cost to the poor and at affordable rates to others.
The Supreme Court also affirmed the Kerala High court’s view, although in a different context and case altogether. The apex court, while hearing the writ petitions on internet shutdowns in Jammu and Kashmir after the revocation of Article 370 and 35A of the Constitution of India, impliedly affirmed the idea of internet access being a fundamental right. In Anuradha Bhasin& Others v. Union of India, the Supreme Court (hereinafter SC) held that “The right to freedom of speech and expression under Article 19(1)(a), and the right to carry on any trade or business under 19(1)(g), using the medium of internet is constitutionally protected”. But should be tested on the anvil of Art. 19(2) and 19(6) of the Constitution. The wide impact or the instrumentality that internet access has on people’s day-to-day life has been understood by the SC in the case of Foundation of Media Professionals v. Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir & Anr. where the court ruled in favour of quality internet and said that imposition of slow internet through 2G services in the Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir is leading the sheer violation of various rights including Right to Health, Right to Education, Right to Practice Trade or Business, Right to Information, Right to freely express your views inter alia other rights. Though the Supreme Court did not explicitly state that the right to the Internet is a fundamental right, they implied or implicitly agreed to it. Both the judgements by the SC somehow demonstrates that access to the internet is primary in nature and can help in the exercise of other fundamental rights protected under articles 19 & 21.
Last Mile Connectivity
So, the importance of internet access as a basic right has been registered by various esteemed institutions over time. And the advent of this pandemic proved their observations to be correct and now it has become a necessity. We are not only facing a global health crisis but there is the possibility of more deep offline inequalities, as we can see that even the digitalised and literate states, like Kerala too, are afflicted by digital deprivation. This crisis has made no-internet people vulnerable and left them sequestered. And with the emergence of the second wave of this pandemic, the possibility of no-Covid life seems far-fetched and we have no clue when this thing will come to an end. This heightens concerns, and the problem has the potential to impact the country's economy, social life, law, and order. It has impacts upon the life of every person in individual and country as a whole.
This diversified utility of Internet access in the Covid times has been perceptible. Inability to access the internet can be draconian for individuals. In this Covid era, people with the ability to navigate the digital landscape will become more prosperous and will receive more avenues of social mobility than others. The governmental authorities are ignoring their responsibilities and are trying to stretch the debate unnecessarily. This perpetual debate, ambiguous philosophical justification of flawed arguments, and lackadaisical attitude of the government is having an impact on the lives of millions of people who are struggling even in ordinary life. Similarly, the Supreme Court has been long overdue in deciding the nature of the right to access the internet, as reliance on the internet grows exponentially over time and millions of people become dissatisfied and demand justice.
Apart from this, the government should ensure and prioritise basic digital literacy and quality internet connectivity across the nation. During this pandemic, the government should try to prioritise providing all the necessary support to keep citizens connected. Private stakeholders and wealthy individuals of the nation should also come forward and help their motherland to overcome this crisis and save the lives of the poor and their employment as well. We can’t put a big burden on the government as the country is already going through an economic downturn, so the participation of private companies and philanthropists has become indispensable here. Private stakeholders and companies must make resilient attempts to ensure that as many people as possible have internet access. We should collectively try to fight this problem, but the government and private stakeholders should take a keen interest in it, as this could prove to be a digital revolution for India. And in a post-covid world, this could be an asset for the country, positioning it as a global hub for digital labour. We should adopt our Prime Minister's mantra, "Aapda ko Avsar me Badalna hai" (we should try to turn this crisis into an opportunity), and the government, in collaboration with private enterprises, should make plans to work in a Public-Private Partnership model to mitigate this problem and make our nation a prosperous democracy, where people have all democratic rights necessary to sustain a dignified life. Government should work in tandem with the private enterprises to improve internet access facilities and come forward with more programs based on the PPP model, such as Bharat Net, Digital India, K-FON, and so on. As a result, private IT firms have the potential as well as the funds to do the same, achieving the desired goal of high-quality internet for all.
Pathway to the Future
So, the internet's significant role in these times is on every horizon, whether it is social, economic, or in the field of human rights, and the right to the internet has become a need of the hour. Today, more than ever, it is clear that internet access is a basic and fundamental requirement for a growing and sustainable economy and society. Now, the Internet can’t be tagged as a mere source of enjoyment or something which is luxurious. It has now become a facilitator of even the fundamental rights of an individual and, hence, is indispensable for living a normal life. And it's not just about the present; if digital penetration in India marginalizes a segment of society, they'll have to deal with the fallout in the post-covid world as well, because digital poverty has the potential to persist in the future. And hence, it will lead to inequalities. So, after exploring all this, the author opines that the right to the Internet should be a fundamental right of every Indian citizen. As it is critical to keep our democracy vibrant and moving forward, let society develop and the nation lead the way forward by eliminating inequalities and differences of any kind.
With this opportunity, together we can take a huge leap forward for our nation!
* The author is a first-year student at Dharmashastra National Law University, Jabalpur.