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Wed Aug 20 12:43:12 SAST 2014

Breaking down the barriers

Toby Shapshak | 05 June, 2011 22:520 Comments

Toby Shapshak: Internet access has been declared a basic human right by the UN. Wow.

It's now on a par with access to drinking water, housing and freedom of speech.

This move is clearly designed to counter the repressive governments shutting down dissent, as we saw in Egypt and Tunisia, and in the past while in Syria.

Released on Friday by UN special rapporteur Frank la Rue, the report on "the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression" is something of a freedom charter for a free internet. It might turn out to be one of the most significant moments in the internet's history, recognising the central role online communication now plays in all our lives.

"The internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies," La Rue's report reads.

"Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and the North African region has shown the key role the internet can play in mobilising the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights.

"As such, facilitating access to the internet for all individuals, with as little restriction to online content as possible, should be a priority for all states."

Access to information and the ability to share it has been the grease of most revolutions, and poor living conditions and high food prices are often the catalysts.

The day the report was released, two-thirds of Syria's internet access was cut off - much like during the uprisings in the Arab Spring countries. The timing couldn't have been better.

It's unimaginable to think of life without being online any more. It's apt to remember the original mantra, "Information wants to be free", that defined the early "information superhighway", as it was known.

It's not just information, the UN has acknowledged a basic human right. Free information and free communication lead to free people. They also gives us informed people, entertained people and, yes, YouTube and LOLcats.

The internet has matured from a being a geeky pastime for sending electronic mail and text-only bulletin boards used by academics into a living, breathing companion culture to our real world.

News is broken first on Twitter, which the news industry uses for real-time reporting if the sort that let Mandy Weiner's followers hear about the Kebble trial as it happened. Even President Jacob Zuma is on Twitter, or at least someone in his office is. Twitter is Facebook for adults.

Back in 1995, when it first became mainstream, the internet was the preserve of geeks who could suffer through the technicalities of dial-up modems and Windows 95 modem string settings, and had little content. Faster modems and built-in settings in new operating systems replaced those and "always-on, super-fast" broadband replaced that. Then came "wireless hotspots" and then the "mobile web", evolving into the remarkable world of everywhere connectivity. Smartphones are the new computers.

"Inbox me" has replaced "mail me" because the range of communication means has increased.

The internet is now not just a basic human right but the basis of much of our lives.

It's created businesses where none existed before. It has empowered a generation of new entrepreneurs who no longer want to be the next Bill Gates but want to be the next Mark Zuckerberg.

Internet entrepreneurs have replaced technology entrepreneurs as the rock stars to emulate.

And, everywhere, people are freer.

  • Shapshak is editor of Stuffmagazine
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