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Is Internet Access a Right? Costa Rica and Colima Say Yes

Submitted by on September 11, 2010 – 6:16 pmNo Comment

Internet Cafe in Nogales, Mexico. By Daniel Lobo. CC Attribution.

As early as 2003, attendees of the World Summit on the Information Society began discussing access to the internet as a fundamental human right. Michael Best, a professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, wrote a 2004 article for Human Rights & Human Welfare which argued that the “Internet as an enabling tool towards other rights— should be a human right in and of itself.” Ever since, there has been an ongoing debate about whether or not Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights can be interpreted as a guarantor of unrestricted access to the internet, or if we are in need of a new articulation that emphasizes the importance of internet access as a fundamental human right.

Some legal jurisdictions have decided to not wait for the United Nations to make up its mind. Estonia, France, Finland, and Greece have all passed laws, legal decisions, or constitutional ammendments to specify internet access as a basic right.

Last month the BBC released a poll of more than 27,000 adults worldwide that found that :

87 per cent of those who used the internet felt that internet access should be “the fundamental right of all people.” More than seven in ten (71%) non-internet users also felt that they should have the right to access the web.

94% of Mexicans responded that internet access should be a fundamental right, second only to South Korea where 96% of respondents viewed internet access as a fundamental right. (Notably, internet penetration is currently estimated at 27% in Mexico compared to 81% in South Korea.)

This past week the nation of Costa Rica and the Mexican state of Colima became the first two legal jurisdictions in Latin America to declare internet access as a fundamental, basic right.

From Mercedes Aguero, writing in Costa Rica’s La Nación:

The [Costa Rican] Constitutional Court declared Internet access as a fundamental right of citizens. Furthermore, the Court ordered the government to promote and ensure universal access by citizens to new technologies.

“This ruling will force us to revise national development plans of the telecommunications sector, as currently there is no goal of 100% universal access to these services,” said Minister of Environment and Telecommunications Teofilo de la Torre.

The same day the Congress of the Mexican state of Colima unanimously approved a reform to the state constitution guaranteeing access to “the information society.” From the Mexico-based Digital Politics:

The Congress of Colima unanimously approved a constitutional reform that was proposed by Governor Mario Anguiano to establish access to the “Information and Knowledge Society” as a constitutionally guaranteed individual right.

The reform consists of adding a second paragraph to section IV or Article 1 of the state constitution, which establishes that “it is a right of the citizens of Colima to access the information and knowledge society as a public policy of the State in order to achieve an integrated and interconnected community in which each of its members lives in an environment of equal opportunities, with respect for diversity while preserving their cultural identity, and oriented towards development, which has a clear impact on all sectors of society.”

The impact of these new laws will likely not be seen until court cases develop in upcoming months and years. A 2010 comparative report on broadband penetration and relative affordability by the Berkman Center placed Mexico dead last in nearly all measurements, including speed, consistency, affordability, and penetration. Internet access in Mexico is controlled by Telmex, the monopoly purchased in 1990 by Carlos Slim – the world’s wealthiest man – when the state privatized the telecommunications sector.

A recent Op-Ed by Susana Mendieta in Milenio emphasizes that Telmex is a monopoly that prevents price competition at the cost to consumers. Surely activists in Colima are already looking at the new constitutional reform as a legal pathway toward government regulation that either promotes competition or places price limits on access.

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