The UN Secretary General has characterised the pandemic as a ‘public health emergency … an economic crisis. A social crisis. And a human crisis that is fast becoming a human rights crisis’. Other UN agencies predict global mass unemployment and severe food insecurity. If urgent action is not taken, existing structural inequalities will expand and entrench and threaten the protection of human rights and the rule of law worldwide.
As the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed the world online, technology has been critical to coping with lockdowns and keeping our communities resilient and functioning. It has enabled many people to access essential public health information, and deal with isolation by maintaining contact with families and friends and sustaining existing and building new communities. It has also been critical for accessing public services, such as through e-health services; continuing education and work online; and allowing key institutions, such as parliaments and courts, to continue to function.
However, these possibilities have been denied to many people across the world due to the ongoing digital divide. The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the persistence of the digital divide in its most basic form: lack of physical access to the internet. Despite recent advances in mobile-cellular network coverage, only ‘half of the world’s population’ are current internet users, with only 20% in the least developed countries. Internet access is also shaped by ongoing structural inequalities. For example, worldwide, a stark gender digital divide exists, with the OECD reporting that, ‘327 million fewer women than men have a smartphone and can access the mobile Internet’. The UN Secretary-General has also pointed out that older persons and persons with disabilities are disproportionately affected by the digital divide.
During the COVID-19 lockdowns, the digital divide has meant a lack of access to work, critical services, health information and education for individuals and groups in positions of vulnerability, entrenching existing inequalities. Some parents have reported having to choose between whether to eat or top up data for their children’s education. The digital divide has also prevented people subject to domestic violence – which has risen significantly during lockdown – from reporting and accessing help.
The COVID-19 pandemic underscores the urgent need for immediate action to address the lack of physical access to the internet. However, that will not be enough. States also need to address the complex range of factors that sustain the digital divide, even once digital access is secured, including low digital literacy skills and security concerns.
The following five principles are immediate priorities for states in responding to harm caused by the digital divide during the COVID-19 pandemic. They are not exclusive but should be the first steps towards a multi-layered and multilateral strategy to closing the digital divide:
- Guaranteeing Internet Access as a Human Right and Public Good
States must recognise that internet access is a human right and a global public good. They should pursue policies grounded on human rights principles to fulfil that obligation, including equality and non-discrimination, inclusion and empowerment, transparency and access to remedy, and respect for human dignity and privacy, paying particular attention to digital divides experienced by particular groups, such as older persons.
- Increasing Availability and Acceptability of Digital Infrastructure
States should take urgent action to ensure that internet access is available to all. This includes increasing the availability of broadband access of acceptable quality and speed through targeted investments, public-private partnerships, regulation, and accelerated international cooperation. States should not resort to internet takedowns and other forms of internet disruption.
- Increasing Accessibility and Affordability of Digital Services
States need to take urgent action to enable people to get online. This includes facilitating ‘access to and affordability and use of connected digital devices’, removing barriers to internet access, such as data caps, promoting net neutrality, and increasing access to free public Wi-Fi. They also need to roll-out digital literacy programmes to increase digital skills, ensure accessibility and adaptability for persons with disabilities, and increase locally relevant content.
As digital exclusion often results from wider structural inequalities, strategies to overcome the digital divide need to be embedded in wider strategies to address existing inequalities, such as gender divides and stereotypes in society.
Targeted strategies are needed to ensure access to physical devices and digital literacy to ensure that:
- the offline right to education applies online, equally and in a non-discriminatory way;
- states provide remote access to health care, including for mental health, in order to avoid unnecessary potential exposure to COVID-19 by limiting visits to healthcare centres but only in a way that complies with human rights-based approaches to health care, by being equally accessible, affordable and acceptable;
- ensure access to essential services, including food, by ensuring that services are not digitally excluding;
- offline services and support for domestic violence are moved online, as recommended by UN Women in relation to violence against women, and increase ‘online advocacy and awareness campaigns’.
Specific measures must be taken to ensure the most vulnerable can seek the help they need online such as providing toll-free 24-hours hotlines, free texting services and online chats, remote psychological and social services as well as new and creative solutions to support those most in need. Attention should be paid to intersectional vulnerabilities that reinforce and aggravate digital exclusion.
However, the introduction or strengthening of online public services must not lead to new inequalities after the pandemic. This could arise through the permanent replacement of face to face health care or education with online services. Rather, online public services should complement and improve existing services.
- Empowering People by Addressing Disinformation and Hate Speech without Censorship
States must take effective measures to ensure safety online, including through cybersecurity measures. The COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in a surge in hate speech and hate crimes against groups scapegoated for the spread of the virus. States and internet companies must address disinformation in the first instance by themselves providing reliable information, through robust messaging in relevant languages and including sign language. Addressing hate speech requires robust implementation of community standards by service providers while protecting free speech in line with international standards.
- Enabling Access Online Should Not Be A Cause for More Surveillance
States must not respond to the pandemic by widening and repurposing counterterrorism tools or introducing new surveillance tools, such as some forms of contact-tracing apps, as this could risk of a new era of surveillance, censorship, repression and discrimination even more severe than post 9-11. States must ensure that they continue to comply with their human rights obligations and that any limitations to human rights meet the specific purpose of preventing the spread of COVID-19 or injury to others and are lawful, necessary and proportionate, including time-limited and with effective safeguards in place. Failure to do so would reinforce the digital divide.
Lessons from COVID-19: Serious Commitment to Overcoming the Digital Divide
At the national and international level, very little action appears to be underway to address the urgent need to close the digital divide as one means to address inequalities in access to basic services during the COVID-19 pandemic. If states fail to take urgent action to address the divide, they will be failing in multiple human rights obligations and they will worsen the multiple crises identified by the UN Secretary-General.
If they take these steps, they will not only be addressing the serious harm being experienced by so many non-internet users but will also be taking concrete action to actually realising the longstanding international commitment to address the digital divide. Response to COVID-19 has brought home the urgency of realising SDG 9c on digital inclusion. The increasing reliance of technology also shows the importance of maximising the benefits of technology while mitigating risks, and the relevance of the human rights approach to technology. In addition to immediate responses identified above, investments in effective long-term solutions are vital. Harnessing digital technologies for good requires multi-stakeholder approaches at both the national and international levels, and, as the ITU Connect 2030 Agenda identifies, must pursue the five goals of growth, inclusion, sustainability, innovation and partnerships.
Professor Lorna McGregor is a Professor of International Human Rights Law at the University of Essex and the Director of the multi-disciplinary Human Rights, Big Data and Technology Project.
Dr Ahmed Shaheed is the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief and Chairperson of the URG’s Board of Trustees
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