Can the Subaltern Internet?23 March 2021
The Fundamental Right to the Internet
Cw: mentions of refugees in detention and police violence.
Towards the end of a catastrophic 2020 and start of 2021, I’ve built some beautiful and unexpected friendships. If you stop by Lincoln Square at 6 pm on weekdays, you will see a fairly large group of people (including me) standing outside and waving at our friends inside. Sixty refugees were detained in Park Hotel Prison on Swanston Street, and 13 of them are still in there. These men, who’ve fled persecution in their home countries to come to Australia by boat, have been in detention for eight years. Over the years, they’ve been supported by community organisers who remind them that we love them and that we’ll make hearts at them through our phones and fight for them until they’re all free.
As the global health crisis worsened in June 2020, the entire world held onto their loved ones through video calls, virtual dinners, and voice messages wishing each other “good night”. At the same time, Cruelty Chief and Minister for Home Affairs Peter Dutton proposed a law which would take away phones from those in detention centres, to “prevent the distribution of drugs and contraband.” The UN High Commission for Refugees, Australian Medical Association, Amnesty, and other international human rights organisations spoke out against the bill. They cited mental health reasons as phones provide access to community support that acts as lifelines to refugees in indefinite detention. Thankfully, the Senate voted down the proposed law, but this ignited a long-standing conversation on the right to have a phone and access to the internet.
The right to the internet, as of now, is not a fundamental human right. To those of us with stable access to the internet, it can look like the entire world is online—information, entertainment, communication and community support. While life can seem unimaginable without the internet, only about 60% of the world is currently online. The rest of the world has several reasons behind not having the internet—geospatial lack of coverage, unaffordability and authoritarian communication bans.
The “right to the internet” is closely tied to the right to communication. Article 19 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights discusses the right to the freedom of “opinion and expression”, which has been adopted by several countries as a fundamental right. Australia, interestingly, does not have an explicit right to free speech, only “an implied freedom of political communication.”
As someone who doesn’t remember the last time they communicated anything without the internet, I find it vastly unbelievable that life without the internet (even with social media) is possible anymore. The internet, as of now, is vastly controlled by a privileged few in Silicon Valley, and access to the internet opens opportunities that replicate neoliberal social institutions where race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and class determine one’s experience.
To put it simply, even though the internet does seem like a world of endless possibilities, said possibilities are still privately owned and profited from. Therefore, there lies a vested interest in controlling who gets to use it, and by extension, who doesn’t. Arguments against free and equitable access to the internet are usually that cyberspace is perceived as a largely unmonitored space where things can go wrong very fast, which is not entirely wrong, especially if the argument is coming from marginalised communities who are far more likely to experience violence, especially anonymised, on the internet.
The state constitutionally guarantees fundamental rights. Denying access to the internet its status as a fundamental right, despite its close connection to the freedom of speech and expression, places too much power in the hands of a state or ruler to monitor or completely halt communication without legal consequences. For example, statistically, a minimal amount of people in detention in Australia have misused phones. Most use phones to stay in touch with family and friends. However, because the internet is not a fundamental right and does not have much legal framework about its use and abuse, it is easy for the state to argue for taking away the internet.
In Kashmir, the Indian Government has kept the internet shut since mid-2019, with limited 2G access and limits to social media. India, which has more internet shutdowns than any other democracy, recently cut off internet in its capital city of New Delhi following the farmer’s protests—along with banning water supply and food. In Myanmar, the military has shut down the internet following protests against the arrest of its democratically elected leader. In many of these state shutdowns of the internet, the most cited reason is “preventing the spread of misinformation.”
While authoritarian governments distract us by spreading panic about misinformation, what they’re also banning is the spread of key information that they’re trying to suppress, birthing regimes of truth that are convenient to them. Arguments for recognising the internet as a fundamental right is, thus, tied to the right to distribute and access information. The efforts to ban the internet reinforce its importance as a key resource and a necessary means to platform voices that are being stifled by the rise of tyrannical powers across the world.
Some of the last things people record on their phones are threats, arrests and deaths. When the Australian Government tried to take away phones from people in detention, Serco, the company that does security for Australia’s onshore detention centres were for this decision, citing the fact that detainees often distribute videos of Serco employees being cruel to them. I’ve had friends from inside detention centres send me frantic videos of Serco employees tinting their windows so they cannot wave to supporters outside.
Not recognising the internet as a right is to often take away from people their last cries of help. It’s to stifle the frantic messages we send to our loved ones when we are scared, it’s a deliberate attempt to prevent the archival of the worst violations of human rights. I’m talking to my parents (who live overseas) as I’m writing this column. My parents, whose only child is a brown trans kid living in ‘Australia’, who routinely runs into cops at protests, watch on proudly as I furiously type.
Not recognising the internet as a fundamental right is denying the love we practice through our devices. And, as they say, love is life-saving.