We can’t reach the U.N. goals for sustainable development without the internet

It’s become common wisdom that the United Nations’ ambitious “Global Goals for Sustainable Development” aren’t just for the U.N., or even governments, to implement. Launched in September 2015, the 17 goals and 169 targets are “a series of ambitious targets to end extreme poverty and tackle climate change for everyone by 2030” (hence the alternative moniker, the “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”).

Replacing the more arcane “Millennium Development Goals,” these Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) are everyone’s goals, crowd-sourced to completion and promoted by companies and civil society alike. (Cue the hip, auto-playing video on the website.)

Smartly, the goals, especially Goal 17, emphasize that access to technology underpins every one of these commitments to the eradication of extreme poverty.

However, not all connectivity is the same, nor yields the same benefits to societies in terms of economic, social, or cultural development. As we told the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), only stable, secure, and open access to broadband internet will ensure success for the U.N. SDGs. That’s something civil society and our partners will continue to make clear, and we’ll need to work in legislatures to get the point across, not simply at aid and development banks.

To reach the SDGs, we need civil and political advocacy

Traditionally, information and communications technology (ICTs) have not been a major recipient of aid funding. That’s one reason this crucial technology is “under-represented” in the SDGs and appears in only four of the 169 targets. It’s assumed that telecommunications will take care of itself, having been largely deregulated and privatized in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet more than half the world’s population is not using the internet, a statistic showing the failure of local, national, and global governance, with economic, political, and moral implications.

Rights like free expression, political participation, and access to information are clearly boosted by internet access, but also impact economic development. Researchers publishing in Science found “a strong and persistent political bias in the allocation of Internet coverage across ethnic groups worldwide.” It’s not simply affordability or geography that determine whether you have the tools you need to get ahead in our digital age. The scientists question the “frequent assumption that the uneven global distribution of digital technology can be mitigated by economic forces and incentives,” like competition and smart regulation — or deregulation — of telcos. “This suggestion needs to carefully consider the role of local political actors in shaping this process.”

Along with political power comes control over your personal data, privacy, and means of expression. The digital economy cannot lift people out of poverty if they lack dependable access, or the capacity and literacy to leverage the tools of the internet for their economic progress.

For these reasons, Access Now created the Human Rights Principles for Connectivity and Development, showing why we must integrate respect for digital rights into infrastructure projects, rather than leave governments, telcos, and development banks to their own devices, however well-meaning they may be.

As written, the Global Goals implicitly depend on digital rights.

But we don’t need to depend on our own research to show why censoring or shutting down the internet, or putting people under surveillance, prevents economic and social development. The Global Goals themselves contain many “easter eggs” or hooks for that work. In response to a question from an Access Now community member, we have examined how reaching Global Goals and their targets depends on law and policy that respects digital rights. Here’s a look at what we found:

Health – SDG3:

“By 2030, ensure universal access to sexual and reproductive health-care services, including for family planning, information and education, and the integration of reproductive health into national strategies and programmes.”

In many countries, if not most, the internet serves as one of the only places for broad access to medical information and support without social stigma. Outright bans on certain categories of data, like sexuality and reproductive health information, are common. Doctors and hospitals increasingly rely on the internet for their daily work, as well. Filtering results they see will not likely advance the benefits of science or medicine. At least one study has shown that shutting down the internet directly impedes access to emergency medicine.

Education – SDG4.7:

“By 2030, ensure that all learners acquire the knowledge and skills needed to promote sustainable development, including, among others, through education for sustainable development and sustainable lifestyles, human rights, gender equality, promotion of a culture of peace and non-violence, global citizenship and appreciation of cultural diversity and of culture’s contribution to sustainable development.”

Censorship makes it more difficult for people to enjoy robust education and gain open access to knowledge. People aren’t able to fully grow their intellect, develop opinions, and achieve new skills if they’re not able to access the wealth of resources online. Innovation in education, including distance learning, YouTube explainer videos, and massive open online courses (MOOCs), depend on access to the open internet. Wikipedia is currently blocked in Turkey, barring access to one of the world’s most popular educational resources.

Civic engagement and anti-corruption – SDG16.10:

“Ensure public access to information and protect fundamental freedoms, in accordance with national legislation and international agreements.” In the digital age, governments must open the public’s access to all sorts of data and policies to ensure good governance and accountability.

Well, that says it quite clearly. Governments “must open” access to “all sorts” of data, as a matter of accountability and basic, best practice governance. For our part, we expect more governments to release information about what user data they’re requesting from companies — something corporate Transparency Reports show — and what content they want restricted, including to “counter violent extremism.”

Universal access to the internet by 2020 – SDG9.3

“Significantly increase access to information and communications technology and strive to provide universal and affordable access to the Internet in least developed countries by 2020.”

This is as close as the SDGs come to recognizing that the internet is essential to achieving its goals. Goal 9,  “Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure,” calls on Least Developed Countries to bring everyone online by 2020. We read this to mean extending access to the global, open internet, not simply censored, surveilled, limited, or app-based connectivity. It’s very ambitious, and it’s also up for review this summer at the U.N. High Level Political Forum on the SDGs.

Finally, SDG17 recognizes that technology is essential to reaching all other SDGs, with this excellent target:

“Fully operationalize the technology bank and science, technology and innovation capacity-building mechanism for least developed countries by 2017 and enhance the use of enabling technology, in particular information and communications technology.”

This is great language as it works positively and negatively. The use of ICTs is not enhanced by information controls, filtering, or internet shutdowns — nor by the indifference of authorities to protecting the free flow of information online. By promoting, not just tolerating or protecting, freedom of expression, we can build capacity for societies to reach their goals widely.

We see censorship of the free and open internet as a bar to achieving the U.N.’s “2030 Agenda,” even if the goals themselves are fairly sanitized and avoid any language on freedom of expression, privacy, and related human rights. Specifically, the increasing rate of internet shutdowns — our KeepItOn Coalition counted 56 in 2016, more than double the number we recorded in 2015  — damages educational, economic, and health outcomes in countries that often are just beginning to benefit from widespread connectivity. With this in mind, we’ll show up at U.N. in New York in July for the High Level Political Forum on the SDGs to see how scores of nations are reaching Goal 9 on Infrastructure, and report back to you the results.