More than 3.5 billion left in the dark: why we’re still fighting to reach U.N. targets for internet access

This is the first in a three-part series of posts reflecting on 2020 and the state of digital rights at the United Nations.

Imagine the world coming together to envision, plan, and commit to creating a better future — for everyone, everywhere. During this time of uncertainty and chaos, many people are still working to realize just such a collective vision, articulated not long ago by Member States of the United Nations: the U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), also known as the “2030 Agenda.” This global action plan includes U.N. targets for internet access in the least-developed countries to ensure that connectivity is “universal and affordable…by 2020.” 

Today, only months from the end of the year, it’s clear we will fail to meet those targets. It is also clear that if we don’t double down on the effort to connect everyone to the internet with universal, affordable, open, secure, and high-quality connectivity, we won’t be able to meet all of the sustainable development goals by 2030.  

Over the next few weeks, we’re taking part in the Internet Governance Forum (IGF), which is holding its 15th Annual Meeting online, exploring the theme, “Internet for human resilience and solidarity.” As part of  that work, we’re  participating in a round table on the promises and perils of satellite internet, where our own Felicia Anthonio, Peter Micek, and Gustaf Björksten will share insight from our work in the #KeepItOn campaign and Access Now’s Digital Security Helpline. But that’s only one of the initiatives we’re undertaking to help facilitate multi-stakeholder efforts to expand global connectivity.

In this post, we take a look back at the past year, explaining how meaningful internet access connects to human rights, and why reaching U.N. targets for internet access matters for achieving the SDGs. Our aim is to make stronger connections with stakeholders and offer resources to enable people to work more closely together in our efforts to realize a better digital future for everyone.

How internet access and digital rights connect to sustainable development

Launched in September 2015, the SDGs set global targets to end poverty, protect the planet, and improve the lives and prospects of everyone, everywhere” by 2030. The 17 goals and 169 accompanying targets cover issues such as hunger (SDG 2), education (SDG 4), and gender equality (SDG 5). These are issues that directly impact our lives and communities, and while there is scarcely a mention of human rights in the document, most of the targets relate to human rights. That is why vindicating these rights is key for reaching sustainable development goals.

Access Now supports and advocates for universal access to affordable, open, secure, and high-quality internet worldwide. We believe that expanding connectivity and reaching U.N. targets for internet access is necessary for realization of all of the SDGs

We delivered a speech in February 2020 at the informal meeting of the Third Committee of the U.N. General Assembly in New York that highlighted the connection between internet access, human rights, and the SDGs. Specifically, we called on the Third Committee to respond effectively to government hacking, internet shutdowns, and digital identity programs. These are threats to the capacity of targeted and under-served individuals and communities to connect to the internet and enjoy a broad spectrum of human rights in our digital era. 

It’s significant that SDG 9.C, targeting universal, affordable internet access by 2020, had a significantly shorter deadline than the overall 2030 Agenda. It reflects an understanding of the urgent need to bring people online as a means to enable the realization of other rights and goals. 

Right now, as we approach the end of 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic has amplified this recognition of the internet as an essential tool for daily life. Governments can no longer hide from the stark reality that those who are disconnected from the internet — deliberately or otherwise — are cut off from exercising a broad range of human rights, including the right to access information, peacefully assemble to defend their human rights, and express opinions. Importantly, SDG 17 acknowledges that “innovative technological development” and “reliable data” are crucial to reach all the goals, and that special, cooperative efforts will best serve the people in developing countries who need it most. 

How far have we come toward making universal, affordable internet access a reality? Not far enough

Experts often use coverage of mobile networks as an indicator to measure progress toward SDG 9.C. In 2015, when the SDGs were adopted, 51% of the population in the least developed countries were covered by mobile-broadband signals. By 2019, this number had grown to 79%. As for internet use, a report produced by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) shows that only 13% of the population in the least developed countries were using the internet in 2015. This number has slowly grown to 16% in 2016, and then to 19% in 2019, meaning that fewer than 1 in 5 people were online, despite having a mobile-broadband signal available where they live. At the global level, only 54% of the population uses the internet, which corresponds to approximately 4.1 billion people, leaving more than 3.5 billion people in the dark. 

These numbers show the enormous discrepancy between what we aimed to reach, what we dreamed, and what we have managed better, failed to achieve. From the start, SDG 9.C represented an ambitious goal, but the unpredictable reality of 2020 has only shown how necessary it is to reach this target. In 2017, participants in the High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF) — an annual U.N. forum stemming from discussions surrounding “the future we want” —  had the opportunity to re-think and re-strategize around this goal, while conducting a thematic review focused on eradicating poverty and promoting prosperity in a changing world. The forum covered 7 of the 17 SDGs, including SDG 9. Yet there was little attention to SDG 9.C, even though the 2020 deadline was only three years away. When reviewing SDG 9, participants in the HLPF focused more on producing data on and monitoring progress, than they did discussing concrete measures aimed to meet U.N targets for internet access and use worldwide. 

Who are we failing to serve? Those already at the margins

As half of the world’s population remains offline, we are failing not only to meet the ultimate goal of closing digital divides among countries, but also within countries. The lack of internet access disproportionately affects people in under-served and at-risk communities, such as women and girls, people in racial and ethnic minority groups, rural and indigenous populations, and people with disabilities. People in these groups have traditionally been left at the margins of political power, public policies, and investments. That is also the case when it comes to internet infrastructure and connectivity.  

In a recent progress report on the SDGs, the U.N. Secretary-General noted “in least developed countries, owing to the high cost and lack of infrastructure, there were nearly no fixed broadband connections. From a health, economic and social perspective, this digital divide is costing developing countries and their peoples dearly during the pandemic.” Keeping people disconnected means that we are denying them the ability to access essential services and exercise a wide range of rights, and therefore preventing them from thriving in the digital age.This cycle of repeated exclusion with discriminatory impact affects people’s social and economic prospects and their human dignity — to which we are entitled as a part of our basic human rights. 

Where are we heading?  Internet shutdowns and lack of investment hinder progress

We are seeing direct government attacks on access to the internet and information and communication technologies (ICTs). The data collected by global the #KeepItOn coalition and documented in Access Now’s Shutdown Tracker Optimization Project (STOP) and the Shutdown Stories project, shows that, in 2019, at least 213 internet shutdowns were reported in 33 countries. This means that, compared to previous years, documented internet shutdowns are increasing in number,  length, and scale. More recently, we have seen governments perpetrate deliberate internet shutdowns in Ethiopia and Belarus, as part of a set of unlawful strategies in attempts to quell protests and purportedly address conflicts. 

Internet shutdowns interfere with the exercise of a broad spectrum of human rights, both online and off. Governments have ordered them in the context of protests and civil and political unrest, using them as a blatant tool to silence dissent, hide rights violations, stop activists, journalists, and human rights defenders from speaking freely, and prevent people from sharing information and organizing political actions. Governments do not appear to understand that internet shutdowns not only have a severe negative impact on people’s human rights, they also have a corrosive effect on the economy, hobbling development

With ongoing conflict, access to the internet and to information is absolutely essential for public safety. Yet, while some governments and telecommunication companies are seeking ways to improve and expand access to a high-quality and high-speed internet, others are moving in the opposite direction. Over the past few months, governments have extended or ordered new internet shutdowns, and have cited the COVID-19 pandemic as a rationale to censor online content, prosecute dissenting voices, and put in place regulatory measures that impede access to a universal, affordable, open, secure, and high-quality internet. 

Some countries are also lagging in investment in the infrastructure that would increase access to the internet and ICTs, leading to degraded service. Governments must provide the infrastructure necessary to ensure secure, high-quality, and high-speed connectivity,  and that includes promoting digital literacy, affordable and stable services, and trustworthy cybersecurity. The lack of appropriate legal, economic, and social infrastructure may render mobile coverage meaningless. When governments do not invest in internet infrastructure in certain areas — whether inadvertently or deliberately — they prevent people from getting connected. Unless the infrastructure is built and maintained, we will not be able to bring everyone online, by 2030 or ever

The way forward: entering the Decade of Action 

We did not get everyone, everywhere connected to universal, affordable internet by 2020. But even as we have fallen short of the U.N. targets for internet access, we can’t drop the ball.  Bringing everyone online is key to reaching the 17 goals of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

We are poised to enter the Decade of Action. Now, more than ever, we must boost our efforts to reach SDG 9.C, and this is likely to require coming up with new solutions for old problems. That’s why it’s crucial to ensure that diverse stakeholders — including governments, international organizations, and civil society organizations — are involved in conversations that will guarantee the race for better connectivity is not blind to human rights implications and impact. 

As we note above, we are participating at IGF 2020, and we hope to connect with you. For those of you seeking additional information on ways to ramp up connectivity while protecting human rights, we have resources to share.

Access Now has published a report, Expanding connectivity to fight COVID-19: recommendations for governments and telcos, that offers a set of recommended practices to foster connectivity. Recognizing the importance of access to the internet to control the spread of the virus, save lives, and allow for the exercise of several rights, we provide a list of dos and don’ts for fostering meaningful access to the internet.

This follows our work in 2016 to launch the Human Rights Principles for Connectivity and Development, which has human rights-based guidance for the design and implementation of development projects to build infrastructure, enhance connectivity, and achieve the SDGs. The 9 principles that we advance are addressed to financial institutions and cover key connectivity concerns, such as privacy and public participation. We continue to encourage leaders of governments, development banks, and private-sector companies to ground their efforts to promote connectivity on this set of principles, ensuring a human rights-based approach to development, without which the SDGs cannot be reached.

If you have any questions or want to work together, we hope you reach out.