The internet has widely been hailed as a force for advancing freedom of expression. This dominant narrative understates the importance of communication and connectivity for the full range of human rights. This year’s Global Information Society Watch (GISWatch) highlights socioeconomic human rights. Among the connections explored here are the rights to work, livelihood, health, education, social security and culture, among others.
The contributions that follow paint a diverse picture of the interactions between internet technologies and socioeconomic rights. Collectively, they persuasively make the case for internet access as a human right, grounded not only in the value of freedom of expression and cultural participation, but as a gateway to the realisation of other rights.
As a human rights scholar focusing especially on the right to science and culture, I have often tried to make the point that technology and culture are not two separate worlds, but rather two sides of the same coin. Cultural life and technology are increasingly tied. The stories of national experiences within this volume make the point more eloquently than I ever could.
One significant theme that emerges from the contributions is the use of communications technologies to demand socioeconomic rights accountability. Leveraging social media, information and communications technology for development (ICT4D) has proven itself to be not only about accessing information and services, but about empowering public scrutiny and criticism, especially for popular and marginalised voices.
The advantages of the digital over the physical are also being realised in a variety of ways. Groups who face threats to their physical or economic security if they organise to claim rights can leverage virtual organisation to shield their persons and identities. Technologies that make distance irrelevant are empowering communities limited by geography.
Unlike freedom of expression, socioeconomic rights have a shorter history of recognition, and even their basic understanding remains considerably in flux. What degree of socioeconomic opportunity and justice is owed to every person by virtue of their humanity is still an evolving question. The success of civil society efforts to leverage the internet for socioeconomic rights will determine the extent to which popular participation helps to answer this question.