The Internet has changed our world. It is now a major part of how people access information, express themselves, engage in financial transactions, and participate in the democratic process. UN Special Rapporteur Frank La Rue “…believes that 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.”, and I think he’s spot on. We’ve seen the Internet’s transformative potential in action when dictators try and switch it off. It’s an integral part of our world, which means we need to protect access to it.
The ‘Right to Access’ is the first of ten rights I have identified in my crowdsourced Internet Rights and Freedoms Bill to extend and protect our existing offline rights into the modern online world, and in this blog post I want to explore some of the issues around it. I am pushing for the right to Internet access to be enshrined in New Zealand law and am inviting people to join the conversation. Some people assume this right means the Government would have an obligation to provide and pay everyone’s monthly Internet bill, or part of it as Labour seem to be proposing, but I don’t agree. The right to access is about enhancing our access to other rights by removing barriers to Internet access, supporting greater availability and affordability and ensuring the Internet remains open and uncaptured.
Bridging the digital divide
Recognising the right to access requires decision makers to do something about those currently missing out. Although New Zealand is ranked 8th in the OECD for number of Internet users, Kiwis living in rural areas, lower-income households, Māori and Pasifika communities, and the elderly are still struggling to get online for a number of reasons – as this fascinating report states “Income has a clear and relatively linear impact on whether people use the internet or not, and if so, how engaged they are online.” These Kiwis are missing out on the full raft of benefits the Internet can provide, and recognising the right to access must involve addressing these challenges.
Terminating Internet termination
The right to access also protects Kiwis from bad laws that threaten to terminate Internet access. The Skynet Bill (Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Amendment Act, as it’s officially known) introduced Internet access termination as a penalty for copyright infringement. With the growing importance of the Internet for civil and economic engagement, access should never be jeopardised. Interestingly, even from the rights holders’ perspective the Skynet Bill has been a dismal failure, with tools like Spotify demonstrating that affordable, legal access to content was always going to be the more successful than a punitive approach that the UN claims breached human rights.
Network neutrality: Free, open, thriving networks
Accessing legal, affordable copyrighted content depends on the right to access. This is crucial for empowering innovation, open communication and resource sharing online. The right to access also protects a free, open and vibrant Internet, not one dominated by discriminatory practises. Imagine if your ISP punished you with slower speeds if you visited one TV on demand channel over another or even stopped you visiting competitor’s websites? Net neutrality embodies the principle that ‘all bits are created equal’ – I want to introduce legal safeguards to ensure ISPs cannot discriminate against end users by restricting, prioritising or blocking certain data from entering their networks. My Bill supports ‘the right to access the Internet free from an Internet service provider applying traffic control or traffic prioritisations to discourage use of a competitors service’. I want to encourage competitiveness in our digital economy and take a stand against data discrimination. The EU has recently passed strict net neutrality laws and I would like to see New Zealand take up the mantle.
Geoblocking and geopricing
Interesting feedback is flowing through on my Internet Rights and Freedoms Bill. One issue I didn’t include when drafting the Bill is geoblocking and geopricing, which users have argued needs to be discussed, and I agree. I am adamant that the Internet should be a free and open space for everyone, which is why I am opposed to discriminatory systems that block users’ access to content. Geoblocking involves limiting users’ access to viewing websites and downloading apps, videos and other media based on location. This is why you’re not able to access Netflix, Australian TV on demand and your favourite BBC documentaries, (or if you are an expat Kiwi watch Shortland Street online) unless you circumvent the geoblocking.
Geopricing involves modifying the price of an item based on geographical location of the buyer. Our country lies in the depths of the Pacific and goods must travel significant distances to reach our shores. But Kiwis have to pay above and beyond the reasonable shipping costs to receive goods purchased online, as revealed in this study I undertook. This discriminatory practice is reflected in digital sales, where companies like Sony (through the Playstation Store) mark up prices based on location.
We need the Internet, which means we need to protect our right to access the Internet. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, please join the conversation at www.internetrightsbill.org.nz