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Human rights in a digital world

- Reshma Lakha-Singh

Digital access itself does not untangle past inequalities. In many cases, it may even increase inequality.

Thandeka Mavuso drowns the sounds of the vacuum cleaner by listening with her earplugs to Kaya FM streaming on her mobile phone. She calls her nephew, Sibusiso, at 3pm every day, using WhatsApp, after the school transport drops him at home in Orlando East, Soweto. When the need arises, Thandeka transfers money to family members during the week, using her mobile phone. She has access to the uncapped WiFi in her employer’s home from Monday to Friday. Over the weekend, she goes cold turkey with data. It is a saving of R350 a month in data and airtime costs from her modest monthly salary.

The right to swipe

Access to the internet as a basic human right has become more relevant as key services that enable basic human rights increasingly work off the internet. As Thandeka’s lifestyle evolves, so too, must the definition and scope of her human rights. In Internet Freedom – a Positive Right to Internet Access, Indra de Lanerolle, leader of the South African Network Society’s Research Project at Wits Journalism, comments: 

“The Constitution protects the right to freedom of expression – a basic human right to communicate and to receive information and ideas. We have to consider that internet access is now a requirement for that right to be realised.”

De Lanerolle adds that there is a contradiction in freedom of expression as we begin to see both the opportunity of the
internet to extend these freedoms and the reality of the internet as constraining them. “Historically, services and jobs would be found in the newspapers. Communication networks have now converged around the internet and it is the means through which everything happens.”

Still dialling up...

Although digital access intends to help people break free from historical disadvantages, the opportunity for digital access cannot be disentangled from pre-existing social and economic inequalities. This is according to Professor Jason Cohen, Head of Information Systems at Wits and his colleagues Thomas Grace and Jean-Marie Bancilhon. In a paper titled Digitally Connected Living and Quality of Life: An Analysis of the Gauteng City-Region, South Africa, the authors use data collected from the 2013 Quality of Life survey conducted by the Gauteng City-Region Observatory to examine the relationship between quality of life and the extent to which individuals are digitally connected. The dataset covered 27 490 individuals living in the Gauteng City-Region and helped the researchers better understand the interface of connectivity with aspects of inclusion and exclusion.

“All things being equal means that being more digitally connected provides a better quality of life, but the likelihood
of being digitally connected is only if you earned more and had access to a disposable income. A signal to us in this data was that digital inequality co-exists with other forms of inequality,” says Cohen.

The devices for digitally connected living typically consist of personal computers and mobile technologies such as tablets, cellular phones or smartphones. Network infrastructure is needed to enable devices to connect with each other and this includes access to fixed-line broadband and fibre networks, and/or wireless networks which include WiFi hotspots and mobile networks.

“Having access to these technologies is a function of one’s existing socioeconomic power,” explains Cohen. “Those who are not connected are locked out of the advantages enjoyed by those who are connected. Government services, financial services, access to health information, and employment opportunities are all going online. There is the potential to widen inequalities. This does not mean that we must stop moving forward with digital access and innovation, but it does mean that access should not remain a function of one’s socioeconomic privilege.”

Digital privilege

Cohen stresses that existing socioeconomic conditions may impact the way a person is able to use technology. “Even with access, inequality can still widen if there are unequal digital literacy skill levels and unequal opportunities for how people use the internet and for what purposes. The problem is more complicated than we think.”

He adds that digital autonomy is another dimension of digital inequality. “Your ability to have unrestricted access that is not bound by time, proximity and money is another form of digital privilege. It becomes more difficult to embrace digitally connected living without digital autonomy. But, for many, access is restricted by location and by time. So the idea that people can just use technology to break through historical disadvantages is unrealistic.”

Access to digitally connected living is supposed to halt the perpetuation of social and economic inequalities and
provide opportunities for people to improve their quality of life. However, digitally connected living depends on – and cannot be disentangled from – pre-existing opportunities for social and economic inclusion.


In 2016, former Metro FM and 5FM DJs Tbo Touch and Gareth Cliff addressed Parliament’s telecommunications
and postal services portfolio committee about the high costs of data in South Africa. This resulted in a nationwide call for local mobile networks to decrease the price of their data. In June 2017, the #DataMustFall hashtag returned to Twitter, with calls for a social media blackout to protest the high costs of data.

The Minister of Telecommunications and Postal Services tasked the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and the Competition Commission to determine the extent of competition amongst mobile operators, as competition is the primary tool to reduce costs.

‘Internet for All’, an international project of the World Economic Forum, has partnered with the South African government to bring internet access to millions of South Africans through public-private collaboration. Aligned to government’s National Development Plan and South Africa Connect, it will address the barriers that prevent
universal internet access. The project is already operational in Argentina, Rwanda, and Uganda.

City of Joburg and City of Tshwane initiatives to provide WiFi hotspots have assisted in improving the quality of life of users. However, experts argue that initiatives around access alone are insufficient. Digital skills and autonomy of use must be addressed and differences in purposes of use should result from free choice, rather than socioeconomic circumstances.

Read more about digital innovation and the interface between humanity and tech in Wits' new research magazine, CURIOSITY, the iHuman edition.