From Access to Empowerment: Internet Access as a Basic Right


The importance of the Internet in the lives of individuals and communities needs no further emphasis. According to annual statistics, the prevalence of Internet access worldwide is still constantly increasing.

Available estimates of the number of Internet users around the world vary. According to estimates by Statista, a website specializing in statistics, there were 5.3 billion Internet users worldwide in October 2023. This number is equivalent to 65.7% of the total world population, while 4.95 billion, or 61.4% of the global population, were social media users.

On the other hand, according to Atlas VPN estimates, there are about 5.16 billion Internet users, representing 64.4% of the world’s population. This number is expected to increase by about a fifth (19%), reaching 6.13 billion people in 2028.

The total number and percentage of Internet users worldwide is not a sufficient indicator of the extent to which its population enjoys access to the network. Previous figures indicate that the probability of anyone in the world being able to access the Internet ranges between 64.4% and 65.7%. However, access to the Internet in reality also depends on which country in the world the individual lives in. According to statistics, the probability of a person being an Internet user rises to more than 80% if they live in a developed country. In comparison, it is less than 50% if they live in a poor or developing country.

For example, India ranks second globally in the number of Internet users, with about 692 million users. However, this number represents only 48.7% of India’s total population. In comparison, China ranks first globally in the number of Internet users, with 1.05 billion users, representing 73.7% of its total population. While the United States ranks third, with 311.3 million Internet users, representing 91.8% of its population. In addition to the apparent disparity in access to the Internet among citizens of different countries, there is a significant disparity in the quality and effectiveness of this access.

The above demonstrates that ensuring equitable and meaningful Internet access cannot occur only through its natural spread but instead requires active intervention, given its economic, cultural, and social biases. Therefore, it has become necessary to work to achieve fair and equal access to the Internet through a legal obligation for the concerned parties, especially countries. This obligation requires international agreements and covenants, which in turn require international recognition that access to the Internet is a basic human right.

There is already an active call led by many human rights civil society organizations around the world to recognize the right to Internet access as a human right. This call began more than a decade ago. However, to this day, there has hardly been any significant progress in turning these calls into reality.

This paper discusses the call to recognize the right to internet access as one of the basic human rights in today’s world. It attempts to answer two questions: Why must we establish a basic right to internet access? How do we reach a comprehensive definition of this right to ensure that access to the Internet is universal without discrimination?

Why Do We Need to Establish a Basic Right to Internet Access?

Importance of Internet Access in the Lives of Individuals, Communities and Countries

An infinite number of sources discuss the importance that the Internet has acquired in the lives of individuals, societies, and countries. This paper focuses on differentiating between the Internet as a gateway to new opportunities for a better life and the Internet as a necessity for normal daily life in today’s world.

The importance of internet access in the lives of individuals, communities, and countries is centered around providing new opportunities that have not been available before. The problem with this approach is that it implies the absence of necessity. It implies that the Internet is a new emergency in people’s lives; they lived before it existed and can live without it as they did for thousands of years.

This approach ignores the other side of the existence of the Internet and modern communications technology, which is creating new conditions for living in the world. These technologies have already changed and continue to change our world, including the necessities of life, work, and aspirations for a way and standard of living.

Today’s necessities for a decent life are different from what they were before the advent of these technologies and all their accompanying changes. Therefore, these technologies are closely linked to the conditions for a decent life for individuals, societies, and countries’ social and economic development.

The advent of the Internet has expanded service access options, but many services are now exclusively available online. While the Internet has facilitated service access, providing these services via traditional methods often incurs higher costs in terms of material and human resources compared to online delivery. Therefore, Internet access has become essential for obtaining many services, not just an opportunity to access more of them more easily.

Some basic services, such as education, healthcare, obtaining government documents, employment, and travel, now depend on the availability of modern communication technology. Therefore, access to the Internet has become necessary to benefit from these services. Not being able to access the Internet does not mean losing additional opportunities in life but rather hindering the ability to live normally.

This is more obvious at the social and economic development level of societies and countries. The emergence of communications technologies has changed the trends of economic growth. Communications technology industries, especially those related to big data, cloud computing, and others, are the most rapidly growing today.

The field of investment in these industries, with its various requirements, represents a large proportion of the development potential available in itself. However, this is only part of the bigger picture. The dependence of traditional industries on communications technologies for their growth and development has increased until they have become necessary for any economic development. Therefore, the United Nations confirms in the “Sustainable Development Goals Report of 2021” that:

“Widespread access to high-speed (broadband) Internet is a key driver of human development. Improving Internet access is a tool for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals in Goal 4 (quality education), Goal 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), and Goal 17 (Partnership to achieve goals). The Internet allows people to communicate, work, shop, and study, especially during the closure conditions that accompanied the Covid-19 pandemic”.

According to World Bank estimates: “Raising Internet penetration to 75% of the population in all developing countries (from the current level of approximately 35%) would add as much as US$2 trillion to their collective gross domestic product (GDP) and create more than 140 million jobs around the world.” These and other estimates lead the World Bank to say that “access to high-speed (broadband) Internet is not a luxury, but a basic necessity for economic and human development in both developed and developing countries.”

Arguments Supporting the Need to Establish the Right to Internet Access

Most arguments supporting the recognition of a fundamental human right to access the Internet are based on the fact that such access supports people’s exercise of their fundamental rights and freedoms. At the forefront of these rights are the right to freedom of expression, access to information, and education and health care. In May 2011, the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to freedom of expression, Frank La Rue, used this approach in his report to the Human Rights Council.

Contrary to what many commentators thought at the time, especially those who work in the media, the report does not call for Internet access to be considered a fundamental human right. The report exclusively discusses the importance of the Internet for exercising fundamental rights and the need to protect it from censorship and surveillance practices. The report highlighted the deliberate disconnection of the Internet by state institutions and agencies, with particular emphasis on the Egyptian authorities’ actions on January 28, 2011. The authorities took the drastic step of almost entirely cutting off Internet and mobile phone services in an attempt to disrupt the scheduled demonstrations.

Focusing on the role of the Internet in enabling people to exercise their fundamental rights represents a weak point in the demand for its recognition as an independent human right. Instead, the practical necessity should be the basis for establishing the Internet as a right. This practical necessity has evolved alongside how individuals and societies conduct their daily lives.

Approaches to the Definition of the Right to the Internet

There are several approaches to defining the right to access the Internet. These approaches stem from a vision of what this right should focus on in order to achieve greater justice and equal opportunities. The paper discusses these approaches in the next section.

Universal Access

Universal access means the availability of Internet access to all individuals and groups everywhere. This approach focuses on providing the necessary infrastructure so anyone can connect to the Internet, regardless of geographical location.

The approach is based on the fact that even in the world’s wealthiest or most developed countries, certain areas are still deprived of Internet connectivity. This deprivation may be total or partial, specifically in relation to the connection speed and broadband needed to enable data-intensive exchange such as video and live streaming.

The approach also focuses on the variation in Internet coverage between different countries and between urban, rural, and remote areas within each country. It seeks to use technologies such as communications satellites to overcome obstacles such as distances and rough terrain.

Access at an Affordable Cost

This approach emphasizes that the main obstacle for many people, especially in developing countries, is their inability to afford Internet services. The approach also focuses on the fact that many poorer countries cannot afford to build the infrastructure needed to provide broadband Internet access to their citizens.

This approach defines the right to access the Internet by separating access to the Internet as a right from the financial cost of providing this access. Under this definition, the right to access the Internet is treated as a basic human right, like education and health care. Hence, countries must work to provide Internet access as a free service to all citizens, or at least to those who cannot afford its commercial cost.

Service Quality

This approach focuses on the fact that the mere possibility of connecting to the Internet does not, per se, achieve the desired social and economic development goals. Effective internet connection is crucial in today’s world, considering the diverse forms of content exchanged online and the reliance of essential services on data-intensive content. This connection quality is paramount in ensuring the efficiency and effectiveness of online activities. Therefore, this approach calls for defining the right to access the Internet in a way that clearly includes the necessity of providing a minimum acceptable level of connection quality for all Internet users everywhere.

Digital Literacy and Skills Development

This approach believes that the obstacle preventing people from benefiting from Internet connectivity is their lack of a minimum level of knowledge and skills required to use Internet services efficiently. The approach focuses on the need to provide everyone with digital literacy and training in basic skills for using Internet technology and services.

This approach seeks to ensure that any definition of the right to access the Internet includes a commitment to providing the education and training required for this. This can be achieved through traditional pathways, i.e., formal education or digital literacy opportunities for those beyond the formal education age.

Open and Non-Discriminatory Access:

This approach shifts the focus from the technical aspects influencing discrimination based on infrastructure costs to the social and cultural factors affecting Internet access disparities. It examines why certain societal groups are denied access to the Internet or face limitations and restrictions on its quality.

This approach addresses the social challenges that expose these groups to discrimination. It also calls for a definition of the right to access the Internet that explicitly includes ways to deal with these challenges in two aspects:

  • Enabling access to the Internet, especially for women and girls in some communities.
  • Enabling the exercise of the right to freedom of expression on the Internet for groups such as religious, sexual, ethnic, and other minorities.

Towards a Comprehensive Definition of the Right to Access the Internet

The paper’s different approaches to defining the right to access the Internet partly focus on one aspect of the Internet experience more than others. Therefore, defining a practical and adequate definition of the right to access the Internet is a crucial goal.

This helps to overcome this fragmentation and ensure the comprehensiveness of this right in all aspects that contribute to achieving its expected goals. This right is considered an important factor in achieving individual and social development and can impact society and humanity in general. In the following sections, the paper discusses the fundamental pillars on which the definition of the right to access the Internet should be based.

The Internet as a Public Good (people’s ownership of infrastructure and network operating resources)

Viewing the Internet as an essential resource requires viewing it as a public good, as human lives increasingly depend on it and will continue to depend on it in the future. This is in exchange for considering it an economic product that is marketed to consumers who want to obtain it. 

The principle of considering any resource a public good depends on two aspects. The first is objective justification, which relates to the extent to which public investments and resources, that is, owned by the people as a whole, contribute to providing this benefit. The second is moral justification, which concerns the extent to which a resource is so essential to individuals’ lives that depriving them of it constitutes an infringement on their basic rights.

The Internet depends on many other materials and virtual resources. Its existence depends on the infrastructure of global and local communications networks. Most countries create, maintain, and operate this infrastructure using resources owned by their people, including taxpayer money.

However, the Internet also depends for its existence on the content available through it, without which it is worthless. This content is overwhelmingly produced by ordinary individuals worldwide, most of whom make it available without charging money for it.

These two aspects form the basis on which the Internet can be objectively conceptualized as a public good. Technology companies’ investments in several elements are also necessary for the Internet’s existence. However, these investments achieve their returns mainly by connecting as many people as possible to the network. This means that considering it a public good and enabling everyone to connect to it without additional cost is necessarily in the interest of maximizing the return on investments of most of the technology companies involved.

Considering the Internet as a public good provides a solid foundation for universal and affordable access. Defending access to the Internet as a basic human right can be more effective if considered as a public good. This is because the right of every member of society to equal access to public goods relates to their shared ownership of this benefit. This ownership arises from the birth of each person and is inherent in them. The paper relies on considering the Internet as a public good as an essential foundation for defining the right to access the Internet.

Integration Between the Right to Access the Internet and Other Basic Rights and Freedoms

The Internet’s role in enabling individuals to exercise their basic rights and freedoms is an extremely important pillar of the definition of this right. But how is this different from the necessity of Internet connectivity for the life of individuals and society as a moral foundation for the right to access the Internet? The answer is that practical necessity creates the need for the right. However, the need for the right to exercise the rest of the rights relates to the integrity of human rights and their interdependence on each other. Therefore, this last need remains a complementary pillar and not the original source of the right itself.

Restricting the need for the right to access the Internet solely to enable the exercise of other rights, without considering its independent practical necessity, suggests that it is not a basic human right in itself but rather a prerequisite for the fulfillment of certain other rights. Consequently, protecting this right is inherently encompassed within the obligation to safeguard the rights it facilitates.

On the other hand, the integration between human rights and the role of each in enabling individuals to exercise other rights is an essential foundation for defining each of these rights correctly. This first ensures that it does not conflict with any other right. Second, it plays its role in supporting the successful exercise of other rights.

Therefore, elements of defining the right to access the Internet should include ensuring that its implementation does not conflict with other rights. On the contrary, its conditions must include what supports protecting these rights. Similarly, the definition of the right to access the Internet should include conditions that ensure that it supports exercising the right to freedom of expression online.

A Proposed Definition of the Right to Access the Internet

The paper presents below a proposed text to define the right to access the Internet. This formula remains subject to limitations and the need for development, but it represents a preliminary proposal that attempts to cover the elements that must be present in this definition.

Definition of the Internet: a group of communications networks connected to each other, whether wired or wireless, and relying on the TCP/IP protocol to transfer digital data between them or any new protocols added to or substituted for it.

Definition of the right to access the Internet: The Internet is a public good owned by all members of the human race. Every human being has an inherent right to the freedom to connect to it and communicate through it to exchange information in every possible way. Countries, individually or in groups and international bodies, are committed to working to protect this right by enabling all Its citizens to exercise it freely and meaningfully in a way that achieves the goals of individual and societal development and for the benefit of the human race as a whole.

The obligation to protect this right includes the following requirements:

  • Countries are obligated to provide free access to the Internet to all their citizens and residents of their territories without discrimination among them on the basis of sex, gender, race, origin, geographic location, nationality, sexual orientation, or any other basis.
  • It is prohibited for any country or governmental institution affiliated with it to intentionally cut off or block access to the Internet for all or some of its citizens under any circumstances and for any justification.
  • Countries are committed to ensuring that Internet connectivity has a minimum quality, in terms of stability, continuity, and speed, to allow the exchange of data in its various forms in a way that does not hinder the possibility of benefiting from it and in accordance with the standards adopted by specialized independent international bodies.
  • Any state, public institution, or affiliate is prohibited from exercising control over data content circulating through the Internet except through legislation that explicitly stipulates a specific type of content that can be distinguished within the narrowest limits and for the provisions of absolute necessity in the absence of a less infringing alternative. The aforementioned legislation is implemented through independent judicial rulings or decisions, and its implementation is prohibited by administrative decisions.
  • Countries, individually and in groups, are committed to working to secure the Internet and all types of information systems related to it. They are committed to protecting them from the risks of cyber-attacks that may cause physical damage to them or the data stored on them regarding their privacy, confidentiality, consistency, and sustainability, as well as enabling their legitimate owners to access them.
  • It is prohibited for any country, public institution, or affiliates to practice any form of hacking information systems or monitoring communications conducted through the network except within the limits of what is stipulated by laws consistent with the requirements of international human rights law and within the limits of necessity to combat crime or protect the rights of individuals.
  • Countries are committed to enacting the necessary and effective legislation to combat forms of discrimination, hate speech, and various infringements that hinder Internet users from enjoying their basic rights, most notably the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy.

The Roles of Different Parties in Providing and Protecting the Right to Access the Internet

The International System and Countries, Individually

The international system holds a great responsibility with regard to the right to access the Internet, compared to its traditional roles towards other human rights. This is due to the cross-border nature of the Internet itself. Therefore, achieving the goal of establishing this right requires a collective effort that includes several aspects. 

At the legal level, appropriate legal frameworks must be established through international agreements and treaties that are binding on all parties. At the operational level, these legal frameworks must be implemented through international bodies or channels of bilateral and collective cooperation between countries when necessary. This cooperation must deal with multiple aspects related to exercising the right that exceeds the limits of a particular country’s legal authority.

Countries, individually, remain the primary responsible actor for protecting and ensuring the right to access the Internet for their citizens. They bear the burden of this responsibility through their legislative, executive, and judicial powers. Countries are obligated to review their existing legislation to ensure that any provisions that conflict with the requirements for implementing the right to access the Internet are purified. In addition, new legislation should be introduced as needed to guarantee and protect this right.

Counties are also committed, through their executive authorities, to issuing the required regulations and administrative decisions and working to implement the necessary procedures to guarantee and protect this right. This includes investment in infrastructure, development of formal education programs, and practical procedural organization. This ensures that relevant private sector companies operating in their territories adhere to their responsibilities and that law enforcement agencies are qualified to deal with violations of this right.

The Private Sector

The global spread of the Internet and its becoming part of the daily lives of billions of people began with its commercialization. This means transforming access to it into a good/service for a fee provided by specialized companies. Since then, the growth of Internet applications and various services has depended primarily on private sector companies’ investments in them.

This resulted in significant technology companies gaining a great deal of influence regarding the management of network affairs, or what is called Internet governance. On the other hand, the legal frameworks, both international and local, dealing with technology companies that practically control the Internet do not differentiate between them and any private business with limited responsibility towards the interests of its customers.

At a time when individuals’ exercise of many of their fundamental rights has become conditional upon accessible and meaningful connection to the Internet, legal frameworks that do not hold technology companies accountable to users of their services become unacceptable. It does not perform the expected role, which is to protect the rights and interests of citizens, as it should be.

Working to rectify this situation should be among the priorities of Internet regulation. It is inconceivable that the right to access the Internet will achieve its goals in practical application without legal frameworks imposing specific and binding responsibilities for technology companies to ensure that citizens of all countries enjoy free access to the Internet. These responsibilities include providing services with a minimum quality determined by clear standards, protecting users’ rights, and committing not to violate them. Among the priorities for the role of technology companies that operate social media platforms are:

  • Transparency in its content management policies, including using algorithms and artificial intelligence technology in implementing these policies.
  • Abiding by specific and clear standards for these policies and ensuring that they achieve justice and equal access to content.
  • Ensuring users’ freedom to choose the content they receive through the service.

Civil Society

The role of civil society goes beyond mere advocacy and pressure to influence the international community and countries to establish the right to access the Internet and ensure the implementation of the obligations resulting from it. Civil society is considered a necessary partner in implementing many measures to guarantee and protect this right. The role of civil society is increasingly important in building collective power for Internet users worldwide. This power enables them to become a powerful party influencing the rules and procedures of Internet governance to achieve their related interests.

Civil society has an educational role that goes beyond just raising awareness of the importance of users knowing their rights regarding access to the Internet. The role of civil society extends to providing information, training capabilities, and acquiring skills. This helps Internet users around the world to benefit fairly and equally from all the applications and services provided by the network.

In addition, civil society can help overcome shortcomings that hinder achieving the goal of establishing the right to access the Internet, such as the lack of content available in the native languages of wide segments of users. Civil society organizations can participate in working to overcome this deficiency.


The Internet is a basic necessity of life today and to a greater and increasing extent in the future. Therefore, it is time for the international community to recognize the right to access it among the basic human rights. This paper sought to highlight the necessity and urgency of the need to establish a right to access the Internet. The paper attempted to use approaches different from those prevalent in today’s global efforts to demand the recognition of this right. The paper also sought to present a definition of the right to access the Internet that guarantees its protection in a way that achieves the goals that justify its need. In addition, the paper presented the role of the main parties working to ensure and protect the right to access the Internet.