A scene from an internet cafe in Ghana, where some are pushing for internet access to be recognized as a universal human right. Photo by Robin Pierro.
Conversations about human rights violations often summon clichéd images of impoverished, emaciated villagers or fly-ridden, pot-bellied children. For many, the term “human rights” means having access to basic needs such as water, food, shelter and health care.
Rarely do we think of access to internet as a human right. But today in Ghana, there are moves to designate web access as a universal right.
And it’s not just in Ghana that this argument is being mounted. The United Nations has proposed that internet access should be a universal right. And Finland, France, Greece and Estonia have already caught on, ruling that the web should be accessible to all.
However, some question the need for such a right in a developing country like Ghana. Should making internet access a right really be a priority when access to basic education and healthcare are still not available to all?
Emmanuel Lafti, a 24-year-old fisherman from Adidome in eastern Ghana explains that for people like him, internet has no use because he has more pressing concerns.
“Why would I spend money on that? I need to work and feed my family,” he says.
But in Ghana, as elsewhere, internet access has the ability to eliminate and prevent rights abuses; it’s a source of awareness and empowerment for people who might not otherwise have access to information about fundamental human rights.
“People need to have the capacity to use technology in order to get information and develop,” says Kafui Prebbie, CEO of 1Village, an ICT company in Ghana that provides internet to rural communities at subsidized rates. At one point, his company even provided free wireless internet in Winneba, a community west of Accra.
“The internet is a tool that has given people a better idea of what opportunities exist outside their own communities,” Prebbie adds.
If fishermen like Lafti could look up different fishing strategies online or ways to prevent the degradation of their fishing crops, for example, it could improve their current methods. Or, fishers could create online forums to discuss issues affecting their industry, such as offshore oil drilling.
Like Prebbie, others think internet should be available to even the poorest citizens. Scott Allen, a Canadian who founded Ghana’s second largest internet café, Sharpnet, wishes internet was more widely available.
“Yes, the government should focus on providing electricity, yes they should focus on water shortages, but Ghana needs to compete with the rest of the world,” he says.
“Internet access is not the government’s number one priority, but it affects so many sectors of society that they can’t ignore it,” says Allen. For him, it’s not about prioritizing one right over another.
A lack of infrastructure and high fees are preventing smaller communities from getting connected, says Prebbie. 1Village is trying to counter that with lower rates, which has opened doors for many people. For example, those who could not afford to leave Ghana for post-secondary education are now taking online courses at universities around the world.
“There are so many people here who don’t even realize what they can do with the internet,” says Allen. “There needs to be more education in schools, not only on how to use it, but on what it can provide.”