This op-ed was written by Sonia Jorge, Executive Director of A4AI, and was originally published by Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Without a smartphone, Darnella Frazier would not have captured the killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis.
If not for amplification on social media networks, it’s doubtful Floyd’s murder, along with that of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and countless other Black women and men, would have sparked a movement against institutionalised racism starting in the US and spreading across borders.
And if those protesting in cities across the world didn’t have cell phones, mobile data and messaging apps, their ability to organise, build support and document their campaigns for justice would be severely diminished.
These protests are not created by technology, but the internet and digital tools do play a central supporting role for Black Lives Matter — as they have for so many movements across the world, from the #BringBackOurGirls campaign to return 276 girls kidnapped by Boko Haram in Chibok Nigeria, to #NiUnaMenos which called attention to wide scale femicides in Latin America, to #MeToo, the Arab Spring and many more.
Digital connectivity has created new avenues for democratic action and disrupted entrenched power the world over.
Of course, the same technologies that help power civic action have become more essential in our lives than ever before due to Covid-19 — a pandemic that has elevated the importance of the internet to let us work, learn and connect virtually as we’re asked to keep our physical distance.
The internet is a lifeline
These tandem events underline what we’ve known for a long time — that the internet is no longer a luxury for the few, but a lifeline that must be for the many.
Yet it’s a lifeline that over 3.5 billion people are still entirely without. That’s why we at the Alliance for Affordable Internet are working to bring down the cost of internet access and get more people meaningfully connected.
Until now, those of us working to expand internet access have been primarily focused on the binary split of those offline and those online, defined by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) as having accessed the internet in any way in the past three months. By this measure, 54% of the global population is connected.
But the truth is, many of those 54% have the most basic — and often unreliable — internet access, keeping them from using the internet in truly meaningful ways. If all you have is a basic device and a few megabytes of data on an unreliable connection, you don’t have the internet connection you need during this pandemic — or to have your voice heard online and engage in civic debate.
We need a new way to measure internet access
There is a huge diversity of experience of those online, ranging from super-users who run businesses across multiple devices to those who occasionally check an email inbox or a social media account.
By focusing just on a binary on/off divide, we limit our digital ambitions and risk creating a gold-plated internet for the privileged and crummy connectivity for the rest. We can’t properly tackle this digital inequality unless we look much more closely at the experience people are having online.
That’s why A4AI has created a new standard — meaningful connectivity — to define the dimensions of internet access that matter most to users and to help set new, more ambitious targets for connectivity.
Meaningful connectivity is when we can use the internet every day using an appropriate device with enough data and a fast connection:
Regular internet use. 20 years ago, the internet was a place we ‘dialed into’ once in a while. Today it’s a core part of daily life and omnipresent, more like the air we breathe than a well we drink from. To fully benefit, people need to be able to use the internet at least every day.
An appropriate device. At minimum, meaningful connectivity calls for access to a smartphone. Smartphones are relatively low-cost and provide a range of functionality that people want such as portability, a camera, voice recording and access to libraries of useful apps. Smartphones can also help to close the digital gender divide, as women are far more likely to have access to them than a desktop or laptop.
Enough data. Far too many people experience severe data scarcity, forcing them to carefully ration their use or delay activities until they can connect to public Wi-Fi. For reliable, regular access, people need an unlimited broadband connection at home, or a place of work or study.
A fast connection. We all know the frustration of a buffering movie or an unstable video call. Without fast speeds, working from home, online learning and services like telehealth become near-impossible. A 4G mobile connection is the minimum threshold that can give us the speeds we need for the experience we want.
Raising the bar for internet access
Meaningful connectivity doesn’t mean we stop working towards basic affordable access. The Covid-19 crisis has illustrated the deep injustice of digital exclusion and why we urgently need action to accelerate progress towards universal internet access.
But affordable access is just the first step. If people are to harness the full power of the internet – to use it to campaign for justice and to survive and thrive in the face of struggle and tragedy – they need meaningful connectivity.
Because access is not an end in itself – it’s what people do with the internet that matters. If those building digital policies are serious about creating a digital future in which all people are empowered, they must urgently raise their ambitions and work to make sure everyone, everywhere has internet access that is truly life-changing.