The “quantity v. quality” debate around global digital access seldom gets the attention it deserves. Here I define “quantity” as the spread of internet access to remote and marginalised communities and “quality” as the extent to which these connections are free from corporate or government restrictions and surveillance.
With more than four billion people yet to come online around the world, basic connectivity is an obvious and necessary prerequisite for digital access. But handing out one laptop per child and selling low-cost smartphones does not solve the quality problem, and can in fact worsen it.
Repressive governments and opportunistic companies sometimes exploit their citizens’ and customers’ ignorance and apathy towards personal privacy and data protection in the name of national security and financial gain. Countries like Iran and China’s biggest web companies are obvious offenders, but western democracies and Silicon Valley startups are far from perfect.
Doling out laptops and ethernet cables without also spreading the internet’s core values of freedom and openness can inadvertently harm newly connected users and the wider web.
NGOs with good intentions sometimes make this mistake. More troubling are companies with financial incentives to lay cables and sell hardware in new markets. Africa is one of the least connected territories, making it, from a corporate perspective, a digital desert ripe for cybercolonialism. Despite being framed as aid, a $20 billion pledge from China to Africa last year was primarily about business. Chinese companies with troubling track records on digital rights and freedoms are also competing to lend their security and surveillance expertise to African governments, a serious cause for concern on the quality side of access.
Frank La Rue, the UN’s special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has described internet access as a right and acknowledged both the quantity and quality components inherent and critical to the enjoyment of this right. Other digital thought leaders, like Google’s chief internet evangelist Vint Cerf, has described the internet as an enabler of human rights but not a right in and of itself. Both perspectives hold weight, but we must not forget that the internet can also be used as a disabler of human rights.
Rather than a panacea, the internet can be poison when used to monitor, suppress and prosecute online speech and offline action.
Cyberutopians who think smartphones will set us free have been proven wrong time and time again. On the flip side, this does not mean that cyberdystopians who fear governments will exploit our dependence on technology and digital communications to neutralise dissent are necessarily correct. Increasing the quantity of internet connections without minding the quality of those connections forged can potentially bring greater harm than good for digital access, but such harm is not inevitable. Companies and NGOs working to spread access should ensure that the benefits they bring outweigh potential dangers they create or expose and should ensure that quantity is balanced by quality at the corporate and government levels. Only when this balance is achieved can global digital access truly be advanced.