Is access to the Internet a human right in Canada?

An astounding 71 per cent of respondents said they take money out of their food budget to pay for the Internet.
An astounding 71 per cent of respondents said they take money out of their food budget to pay for the Internet. Credit: ACORN Canada

Do you think access to the Internet is a human right? Is being able to use e-mail, get government services online, or simply Google a question you have as important as freedom of religion or freedom of speech?

In an increasingly wired world, many would argue high-speed Internet access has become essential for everyday life.  But what about people who can’t afford an Internet connection?

Right now, the Canada Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission is looking into whether an Internet connection is a luxury or a basic necessity for people?

The United Nations says it is. In 2011, it recognized access to Internet as a human right, analogous to freedom of speech.

In Canada, we also have been increasingly concerned with making access to the Internet more affordable and accessible, because in reality, without access to a computer and the Internet, a person can barely keep up with the Joneses in our digital age.

The CRTC started reviewing basic telecommunication services in April 2015. Its main concerns in conducting this review are “upload/download speeds necessary in the digital age” and “the role of economic and regulatory players in the public and private sectors.”

As a response, the Affordable Access Coalition (AAC), made up of several organizations, including ACORN (the Association of Community Organization for Reform Now) issued a notice of consultation in July 2015.

In that report, the AAC pointed out that access to broadband Internet services has become “an essential telecommunications service . . . from a human rights perspective to a national economic competitiveness standpoint, Canada must make universal broadband access a priority.”

ACORN also issued an independent report in January 2016 entitled “Internet for All,” where it looked at various startling statistics about the availability of home Internet.

The report stated that Statistics Canada reported in 2012 that only 58 per cent of Canadian families who make $30,000 or less had access to the Internet. In comparison, 98 per cent of Canada’s highest income households have access.

AAC and ACORN point out this is a “digital divide,” which is defined as those who have and don’t have Internet access at home. The have nots are at an obvious disadvantage because they are excluded from opportunities that those with Internet access have, such as employment, education, government services, and more. This exclusion, in turn, makes it a poverty issue.

ACORN’s survey showed 83.5 per cent of the people surveyed find it very hard to afford high-speed home Internet, regardless of income. Even worse, those who can’t afford an Internet connection sacrifice other things to pay for it. An astounding 71 per cent of respondents said they take money out of their food budget to pay for the Internet.

The CRTC is going to make a decision soon on whether access to home Internet is essential and a right, which will guide how the Internet may become more affordable for low-income families.

However, if the CRTC does not recognize that access to Internet is essential and a right, then organizations fighting to get access to the Internet recognized may be forced to turn to courts and tribunals to further their agenda.

After all, if the UN has recognized that access to the Internet is a human right, like freedom of speech, then these organizations could make a Charter argument that access to the Internet is a fundamental right, the denial of which amounts to discrimination.

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