Freedom of Expression

Press release R206/20

States of the Region must Accelerate Universal Internet Access Policies during the COVID-19 Pandemic and Adopt Differentiated Measures to Incorporate Groups in Vulnerable Situations

August 31, 2020

Washington D.C., - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SR FOE), within the framework of its Coordination Unit for the Rapid and Integrated Response to the COVID-19 pandemic (SACROI COVID-19, for its Spanish acronym), express their concern on the serious limitations posed by the lack of Internet access of the most vulnerable sectors of the population in the region, and the consequent limitation in the exercise of other fundamental rights, which affects indigenous communities, Afro-descendant populations, women, children and adolescents, and the elderly, among other groups, in a differentiated way.

In the current health emergency context generated by the Covid-19 pandemic, people's access to quality Internet acquires an inevitable central role. Based on the isolation and/or social distancing measures imposed by governments at a global level and their extension over time, Internet connection emerges as the predilect tool to continue with daily tasks that previously required in-person contact, in addition to being crucial for the exercise of civil, political, economic, and cultural rights. Access to the Internet should not be interrupted by blocking, Internet filters, or service outages for political or discriminatory reasons.

The infrastructure and the level of digital literacy required to face the so-called "new normal" presents great challenges in the region. The latest figures published by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) at the end of 2019 indicate that globally only 53.6% of the population (4.1 billion people) have access to the Internet, while the remaining 47% (3.6 billion people) is still offline. In the Americas, almost 23% of the population does not have Internet access; at the same time, different levels of access are observed depending on the countries, subregions, and communities. In Latin America and the Caribbean it is estimated that at least 300 million people do not have access to the Internet, with the highest rates of disconnection mainly in Central American, Caribbean and South American countries.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur have identified that indigenous communities, women, Afro-descendants, children and adolescents, among other groups with specific needs, are suffering disproportionately limited access and affordability of the digital technologies. This digital divide reinforces the pre-existing inequalities suffered by these groups, which have been widely documented.

We also draw attention to the lack of official figures and systematic studies on how the lack of Internet access impacts indigenous and Afro-descendant communities. This is because the ethnic variable is not yet considered in many of the most important reports worldwide that analyze inequalities in access to digital technologies. The gender variable is more present in statistics on access to information and communication technologies, although there is still a lack of systematization at the regional level.

However, the fact that this information is not collected and systematized in an official way does not mean that it does not exist as a problem. In this sense, the ITU has recognized that "indigenous peoples, rural areas residents, people with disabilities, women, young people, boys and girls" constitute some of the groups with specific needs to tend to. Likewise, numerous civil society organizations and activists in the continent are trying to provide information on this digital divide.

The IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur draw special attention to States regarding the problem of disconnection of these groups from the Internet infrastructure, which implies difficulties in accessing rights, including the financial aid that governments are offering to alleviate the needs derived from the pandemic. In general, public institutions use the web to disseminate information about these aids, and in most cases the applications require registration and monitoring online. In other cases, although the population could access such information, they encounter language barriers, since, for example, there is little or no information on the Covid-19 in native languages.

Access to the Internet also has a direct link with access to education. According to UNICEF, in Latin America and the Caribbean approximately 154 million children and adolescents -more than 95% of those enrolled in the region- are temporarily out of school due to the Covid-19, and a large percentage of them have no way of accessing online educational content. This situation lasted longer than initially expected, and could increase the risk of permanent school dropout, especially for the most vulnerable children.

For these reasons, emergency measures to guarantee Internet access must privilege the extreme situation of vulnerability in which these groups of people find themselves, so that they can count on the possibility of accessing basic services such as education, health care, remote work opportunities, and contact with their families.

The IACHR recognizes the positive measures that different governments and regulators in the continent have adopted to guarantee access and continuity of access to Internet and telecommunications services. Some States, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, or Ecuador, have prevented mobile or fixed telephony companies, Internet companies, and cable TV companies from suspending or cutting off services in cases of arrears or non-payment until a certain number of months. In El Salvador, deferred payment for telecommunications services was approved.

Virtual education applications have also been implemented under the zero-rating mode, which would not consume data, to allow students not to be affected in their schooling and to continue with their classes virtually without extra costs. This is the case, for example, of the "Colombia Aprende" portal in Colombia and the "Seguimos Educando" portal in Argentina. Providers offer navigation on this educational platform for free from all mobile phones, whether prepaid or postpaid. Although it is a measure that if sustained over time could be problematic in terms of pluralism, it appears to be adequate and proportional during an emergency such as that of the Covid-19.

In education and digital culture policies, Uruguay is presented as one of the best prepared countries in the region. The Ceibal Plan, created in 2007 to democratize access to digital technologies, ensured that  the continuity of classes was not affected by the closure of educational establishments in March; at the beginning of the pandemic, the virtual platform already had an ecosystem of more than 173,000 educational resources.

However, these transitory measures to guarantee Internet access need to be accompanied by solid, planned, long-term public policies and plans, with special emphasis on groups in vulnerable situations. It is also crucial to: generate public information regarding the lack of Internet access and its differentiated impacts is also crucial; the actions and measures adopted by other actors in the digital ecosystem, such as private telecommunications companies or Internet service providers; and the role of civil society and academia, in terms of training, as well as in research that allows the presentation of alternative solutions -non-profit, social, and community-based- to make the right to information effective.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and its Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression join the efforts of the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), and UNESCO in promoting policies to expand access to ICTs and reduce the digital divide, as well as to make visible and raise awareness of the problem of lack of access to the Internet. In this sense, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur are working on a guide on the state of the Internet access situation in the region and the special impact of the digital divide in the context of the pandemic, which will also gather recommendations for States, companies, the private sector, and civil society to move towards greater and better inclusion of people on the information superhighway.

Faced with this context, and in line with Resolution 1/20 on Pandemic and Human Rights, the IACHR and its Office of the Special Rapporteur reinforce the call to States to guarantee access to an affordable and plural Internet for all their citizens, especially those groups of people in situations of vulnerability, and we urge them to carry out positive measures to reduce the digital divide. In addition to allowing interactions that are decentralized, instantaneous, without blockades, and without border limits, the Internet constitutes a sine qua non condition for the effective exercise of human rights, such as freedom of expression and opinion, of association and assembly, as well as access to the rights to health, education, work, and culture.