Glossary of Platform Law and Policy Terms

(Digital) Access

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Glossary of Platform Law and Policy terms
Cite this article as:
Chris Wiersma (16/12/2021). (Digital) Access. In Belli, L.; Zingales, N. & Curzi, Y. (Eds.), Glossary of Platform Law and Policy Terms (online). FGV Direito Rio. https://platformglossary.info/digital-access/.

Author: Chris Wiersma

In the words of Ribble (2011, p. 16)1, ‘digital access’ is defined as “full electronic participation in society”. In this context, the digital divide means inequality of access.

For Carpentier (2007)2, digital access includes:

(1) access to media technology;
(2) access to skills to use the technology;
(3) access to content that is considered relevant; and
(4) access to the content-producing organization.

To the above, it seems essential to add access to applications and services of one’s choice as well as to the technology (both hardware and software) enabling the development of applications and services (Belli, De Filippi, 2015; A4AI, 2020)3 4 or even the development of network infrastructure itself, also known as ‘network self-determination’ (Belli, 2017)5. These factors should be taken up together for describing ‘meaningful connectivity’ (A4AI, 2020)6.

Access barriers related to basic connectivity (having an internet connection) as well as (basic and advanced) digital skills are being progressively monitored nowadays, for example in the European Commission’s Digital Economy and Society Index (DESI). The latter element is especially emphasized in the DESI as a major factor for the improvement of human capital related to digital access. ‘Digital skills’ include not only “basic usage skills” but also “advanced skills and development” that can be used for the development of new digital goods and services (DESI, 2020, p. 51)7.

The lack of relevant skills also limits awareness of potential benefits from digitization. Recent COVID-19 confinement measures made these two challenges more visible (e.g., children not being able to connect to remote schooling due to the lack of connection to digital infrastructure, the hardware, or digital skills). Besides academia, digital literacy has been debated in policy as well (see, for example, Council of Europe, 20168, and the new “Digital Education Action Plan” of the European Commission, 20209).

One of the media technology access barriers is the unequal availability of the (broadband) internet. By mid-2020, 59.6% of the world population use the internet (see Internet World Stats)10 with North America and Europe leading (over 85%). The access barriers to infrastructure are especially visible in rural and remote areas and developing countries without high-speed networks. For example, according to the State of Broadband report (2019)11, poor connectivity was a major barrier to using the internet for 43.5% of respondents.

According to some scholars, it is estimated that the bandwidth gap is still evolving and will be difficult to close (Hillbert, 2016)12. While all the elements within the definitions that are introduced above are closely associated with the role of online platforms, the third and fourth elements – in connection to content – are especially emphasized in the platform governance communities. As a key term, digital access thus refers to issues of facilitating access to content and content-producing organizations. This area of law and policy is linked to public policy opportunities for developing valuable protections of online experiences. For example, in UNESCO’s Internet Freedom series, platforms are intermediaries that could foster freedoms online, substantively based on several principles, holding that “the Internet should be human rights-based, open, accessible for all and governed by multi-stakeholder participation” (ROAM-principles, UNESCO, 2014)13.

The Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (Lanza, 2016:15)14 has repeated these principles and linked them to the Rights to Freedom of Thought and Expression, the Rights to Access to Information and the Right to Privacy and Protection of Personal Data. In this sense, the increasing number of court rulings holding that government shutdowns of the internet are illegal should also be mentioned, such as the judgment of the Community Court of Justice of the Economic Community of West African States, in Amnesty International Togo v. The Togolese Republic (ECOWAS, Court of Justice, 202015; Pollicino, 202016).

Similarly, the Council of Europe’s “Human Rights Guidelines for Internet Service Providers” (2008)17 sought to raise awareness for those entities providing access and stressed “the importance of users’ safety and their right to privacy and freedom of expression and, in this connection, the importance for the providers to be aware of the human rights impact that their activities can have”.

In July 2020, in correspondence between Romano Prodi and David Sassoli, the President of the European Parliament supported the idea of establishing digital access as a human right (Sassoli, 202018; Prodi, 202019). As previously developed statements, through the opinions of several courts and other institutions throughout the world (Pollicino, 2020)20, it points to a growing demand for establishing access in a way that grants internet users one or more separate fundamental (digital) rights.

References

  1. Ribble, M. (2011). Digital citizenship in schools: Nine elements all students should know. International Society for Technology in Education.
  2. Carpentier, N. (2007). Participation and interactivity: changing perspectives. The construction of an integrated model on access, interaction, and participation. In: New media worlds. Oxford University Press. 214-230.
  3. Belli, L., De Filippi, P. (2015). Net neutrality compendium: Human rights, free competition, and the future of the Internet. Springer. Available at: https://www.ohchr.org/Documents/Issues/Expression/Telecommunications/LucaBelli.pdf.
  4. Alliance for Affordable Internet – A4AI. (2020). Meaningful Connectivity: A New Target to Raise the Bar for Internet Access. Available at: https://a4ai.org/meaningful-connectivity/.
  5. Belli, L. (2017). Network self-determination and the positive externalities of community networks. Community Networks: The Internet by the People, for the People. Official Outcome of the UN IGF Dynamic Coalition on Community Connectivity. FGV Direito Rio. Available at: https://www.intgovforum.org/multilingual/index.php?q=filedepot_download/4391/1132.
  6. Alliance for Affordable Internet – A4AI. (2020). Meaningful Connectivity: A New Target to Raise the Bar for Internet Access. Available at: https://a4ai.org/meaningful-connectivity/.
  7. Digital Economy and Society Index – DESI. (2020). Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/digital-single-market/en/desi.
  8. Council of Europe Strategy for the Rights of the Child, 2016, available at: https://rm.coe.int/CoERMPublicCommonSearchServices/DisplayDCTMContent?documentId=090000168066cff8.
  9. European Commission. (2020). Digital education action plan. Available at: https://ec.europa.eu/education/education-in-the-eu/digital-education-action-plan_en.
  10. Available at: https://www.internetworldstats.com/stats.htm.
  11. UN. (2019). Broadband Commission. The State of Broadband 2019. Available at: https://broadbandcommission.org/publications/Pages/SOB-2019.aspx.
  12. Hilbert, Martin. (2016). The bad news is that the digital access divide is here to stay: Domestically installed bandwidths among 172 countries for 1986–2014. Telecommunications Policy, 567-581. Available at: http://doi.org/10.1016/j.telpol.2016.01.006.
  13. UNESCO. (2014). Fostering freedom online: the role of Internet intermediaries. UNESCO Series on Internet Freedom. Available at: http://www.unesco.org/new/en/communication-and-information/resources/publications-and-communication-materials/publications/full-list/fostering-freedom-online-the-role-of-internet-intermediaries/.
  14. Lanza, Edison. (2017). Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Standards for a Free, Open and Inclusive Internet. OEA/Ser.L/V/II, CIDH/RELE/INF. Available at: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/expression/docs/publications/INTERNET_2016_ENG.pdf.
  15. Application n˚. ECW/CCJ/APP/61/18IN. ECOWAS Court of Justice. Available at: https://africanlii.org/node/7135.
  16. Pollicino, Oreste. (2020). The Rights to Internet Access: Quid Iuris? In The Cambridge Handbook of New Human Rights: Recognition, Novelty, Rhetoric edited by Andreas von Arnauld Kerstin von der Decken, and Mart Susi, 263-275. CUP. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3397340.
  17. Council of Europe. (2008). In co-operation with the European Internet Services Providers Association (EuroISPA). Human rights guidelines for Internet service providers. Directorate General of Human Rights and Legal Affairs. Available at: https://rm.coe.int/16805a39d5.
  18. Sassoli, David. (2020). Il diritto al web sia una battaglia europea (reply to Romano Prodi). La Repubblica. Available at: https://www.repubblica.it/politica/2020/07/19/news/sassoli_il_diritto_al_web_sia_una_battaglia_europea_-262314742/.
  19. Prodi, Romani. (2020). La connessione sia un diritto umano (letter to Sassoli). La Repubblica. Available at: https://rep.repubblica.it/pwa/generale/2020/07/16/news/prodi_scrive_a_sassoli_la_connessione_sia_un_diritto_umano_-262146830/.
  20. Pollicino, Oreste. (2020). The Rights to Internet Access: Quid Iuris? In The Cambridge Handbook of New Human Rights: Recognition, Novelty, Rhetoric edited by Andreas von Arnauld Kerstin von der Decken, and Mart Susi, 263-275. CUP. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3397340.
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By Chris Wiersma

Chris Wiersma is an independent researcher and senior adviser-jurist. Chris specializes in Information Law, especially having expertise in media law, IP/copyright, data protection and the impact of digital technologies on human rights, in the context of European legislation. Previously, Chris held positions as scientific staff at the Universities of Amsterdam and Ghent, where he taught classes in law and political/ social sciences. His work has been published in Dutch and English in journals such as Mediaforum (deLex), Auteurs en Media (Larcier), Nordic Journal of Human Rights (Taylor&Francis/Routledge) and Communication Law and Policy (idem). Recent research on ORCiD at 0000-0002-5137-6046.

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