It’s more than likely that you’re currently reading this blog post online, on a computer or phone, hopefully sitting comfortably. It’s also more than likely that this isn’t your first time on your device today- sometimes I don’t realise just how much we use devices to do everything: texting people, having video calls or research. Even more so in times of covid 19 still being a threat, children as young as elementary or middle school are on their devices the majority of the day for online learning purposes; truly, the use of internet and devices are indispensable in this day and age, despite us taking it for granted sometimes.

Should cybersecurity be a human right?

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The Good

It sounds like so far that internet access should be a human right, so we shall start with that; this is probably the idea you’re most comfortable with, if you’re anything like me and nothing in my first paragraph shocked you.

As you’ve already noticed, the internet is generally quite a convenient thing for us to have, as people who live in middle class homes in a probably western(ised) culture. Estimates claim that nearly 60% of the world’s population now has internet access, aligned with the leaps and bounds of technological progress. Further numbers reveal that most Americans check their phones up to 160 times a day- that’s about once every 10 minutes if you assume even phone-checking distribution throughout 24 hours. Whilst you could argue that we’re becoming addicted to technology (and it will be eventually), you have to absolutely admit the conveniences phones offer us are all just a couple clicks away.

Certainly something that’s enabled this drastic change to occur is decreased pricing of all these services. Imagine writing letters to friends overseas. The cost of the stamp, the paper, the writing utensils, mailing cost, perhaps even shipping cost. The age of the world has reached a point where the general population has an expectation, to not have to send letters overseas as opposed to send a quick text message. It’s this change in expectation, that’s the root of our first reason why internet access should be a human right.

A “sub-section” of convenience would be education. You’d have to be kidding yourself, to say that education would have advanced to where it is now without technology. One example is Duolingo, an app that “teaches” you languages on the go. As well as this, I know as a student that there’s a plethora of websites that offer free online courses, with some that can earn university credits. The pandemic has also boosted this wave of e-learning- whilst some students may say that it’s useless compared to learning in a classroom, for those in circumstances that won’t allow access to that luxury, it’s better than nothing. Learning a new hobby has never been easier, opening up endless opportunities; granted you have internet access.

Myanmar generals shut down internet as thousands protest coup

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A case study for The Good

On a slightly more serious note and less western point of view, you may have already heard of the civil unrest in Myanmar happening currently. To summarise and avoid turning this post into a history essay:

-The military (Junta) ran a dictatorship from about 2011-2014, with an oppressive regime. At these times, the cost of a SIM card was $3000, and private ownership of any communication technology was unheard of.

-In 2014, the country became more democratic and opened up to the rest of the world, for example Qatar’s Ooredoo and Norway’s Telenor getting licenses to develop the country’s technological infrastructure. Internet was relatively uncensored now, with exception to the ongoing Rakhine state conflict and porn.

-In 2018, Facebook banned Myanmar officials for going against their terms and services and inciting violence through their posts. They moved to the Russian site VKontakte, and Facebook subsequently banned all accounts associated with the Myanmar military. 

-Caused by (losing) a recent election, the military declared the country in a year-long state of emergency and had several coups, beginning on February 1st 2021. In early April/late March, they shut down the internet for 18 days, suspending local wireless broadband and imposing curfews on internet for 50 days. The most prominent effects of this was the cut off of Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, as well as stunting the country’s own banking system. The latter of this forced them to lift the shutdown.

Articles on the history of their unrest seemed to note the growing prosperity, both economic and technological, that Myanmar had once democracy had been established and freer access to internet was allowed alongside less censorship. The use of social media rapidly grew, and until now their most downloaded apps were Facebook, TikTok, Viper (a japanese VoIP and messaging software) and Instagram. A good illustration of the country’s growth would be a graph of their GDP. Placed alongside a graph of their internet usage, it may be possible to infer that more open internet access has mainly benefitted the country rather than not.

Now in 2021, it’s common to see #whatshappeninginmyanmar and #internetshutdown as of late, trending on Twitter consistently. With the other black lives matter protests still getting publicity (I’d hope), one may deduce that they have similar root causes: fighting for a human right. Surely if the people have similar reactions to different problems, the causes of the problem would also be similar. Existing, internet access…neither being treated as a luxury, but a basic right.

Coincidentally, spreading of news and awareness of social issues has quickly risen to be one of the main uses of social media and the internet these days. Arguably, news headlines are extremely biased in their reporting of certain events, but internet access has made it even easier to spread news via word of mouth- simply retweeting some news could spread it to all your followers simultaneously, and then they could retweet it to their followers etc. The viral nature of certain trends, news or not, means that information can spread incredibly quickly and effectively, especially if people spreading news know their audience well.

How Misinformation Hurts Democracy - Knowledge@Wharton

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The Bad

Despite all of this, we can take this point of the virality of trends and news in a different direction, leading us to our first drawbacks of internet access: misinformation, and it’s knock-on effect on attention span. I can safely say that during my time on Twitter, it’s not uncommon to find someone, or even myself, falling for a tweet announcing “news”. Fake news, as we know, has become a serious issue, and instant spreading of it hasn’t helped. It would seem that humans are wired to be intrigued by the things they want to be- as basic as a dating rumour of their favourite celebrities, or monumental as life on another planet- humans so desperately want to believe in something.

Basically, we have a tendency towards confirmation bias i.e if the fake news appeals to someone, they’ll probably believe it and feel obliged to share it. Explanations for confirmation bias include efficient processing of information and self-esteem, though the prior is more useful in this context. It makes sense: the internet has practically an endless supply of information- real, fake, both at the same time- so it makes sense for one to process the information they already thought was true, to be true. To put a psychological term on it, it’s to avoid “cognitive dissonance”- avoiding holding 2 contradictory beliefs.

Furthermore with viral trends, I’ve noticed significantly throughout my growing up, just how fast they come and go. These days, it’s uncommon for a meme format to last more than a month once out on the internet, for example.

Time for an anecdote

A (weird but cool) side effect of this is a completely changed perception of time. About a month ago (March 2021) I started listening to a song I liked in November 2020, and got hit by an unexpected wave of nostalgia usually reserved for when I’m reminded of events from years ago. This had me wondering: when does something become nostalgic, and why has my sense of it gone so wonky? It had only been 5 months, yet my brain thought it was from years ago.

In addition to this epiphany, I’ve noticed how short my attention span has become as a result of much internet usage. As another anecdote, I tried to watch an anime series over the Easter holidays but simply couldn’t get myself to, no matter how much I liked the plot. To be fair, the series is substantially longer than others I’ve watched, but I couldn’t will myself to finish it. Similarly with youtube videos- recently I’ve found myself constantly pressing the fast forward button like an impulse reaction. Or even with music- I see a song is longer than 4 minutes and press skip, or just a minute through a new song, I feel the need to move on already.

Some research has shown that between 2000 and 2015, attention span has decreased from about 12 seconds, to 8.25 seconds; at this rate, attention span in 2021 should be around 6.75 seconds (if I’ve done the math correctly).

Honestly, I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve been skim reading the past 3 paragraphs, but that’s what the bold font and subtitles are for.

Back to The Bad

Certainly 2 factors influencing this decrease in attention span, are the development of FOMO (fear of missing out) and internet addiction. I’m sure that we’ve all experienced FOMO at some point in our lives, offline or online. Hearing about an event you really want to go to, but having something to do that you’ve been putting off for months, or not being able to resist checking social media one last time before sleeping- I’m definitely guilty of the latter. There have been legitimate studies done on the link between both of the above factors in fact, and it’s not surprising. It makes sense that if one is “addicted” to the internet, they would have a fear of missing out on news/updates from friends/whatever they use the internet for. The absolute surplus of information being released and posted on internet spaces everyday is an infinitely massive black hole that people do get sucked in.

My personal opinion, is that internet addiction is very conflicting. On one hand, it’s almost a coping mechanism for people, much like a drug, which would actually support that internet access should be as free as possible. On the other, most under this spell would be aware of its well-known negative mental effects, and may even argue the opposite; that it shouldn’t be complete human right without strict regulation.

A case study for The Bad

Much like the change in expectation I mentioned earlier, there’s been drastic changes in mindsets of young people as technology and internet access has advanced. Not only has there been more reliance on the the internet as an integral part of (our) lifestyles, but as a consequence, there’s been more awareness around mental health.

A study done in 2016 on 2286  European adolescents, already highlighted at the time that 90+% of people age 16-24 use the internet “at least weekly”. Other statistics display mainly European 14-24 year olds having the highest “number of hours spent on the the internet daily” as of the same year, for example the Netherlands clocking in at 6+ hours. The study also says:

“A major line of research has linked mental health problems to what has been termed problematic Internet use (or pathological or compulsive Internet use), which is often conceptualized as an impulse control disorder similar to gambling addiction and other behavioral addictions.”

However, they also emphasise the importance of differentiating between the effects of different web-based activities:

“In some cases, it could be important because the activity in question is prone to becoming addictive, such as Web-based gambling…[however] For example, 1 study on social media use suggests that passive consumption of social content increases feelings of loneliness, whereas direct communication with friends does not.”

The main method the team used to analyse the implications of the data they collected was the “Depression Anxiety Stress Scale“, developed by the Psychology Foundation of Australia, and is essentially a questionnaire to assess how anxious, stressed or depressed you are. According to the resultant data analysis:

“Regarding consequences of Internet use, finding new friends, learning interesting things, and having fun did not predict DASS scores in model 4. Thus, these “positive” consequences did not seem to act as protective factors. However, Internet use that was perceived to increase life meaning or improve school or work performance was a significant protective factor. The “negative” consequences were more powerful predictors of DASS scores.”

This clearly suggests that despite the positive factors acknowledged, they didn’t seem to have nearly as much impact on mental health as the negative factors did. Later, the report also notes that over-usage commonly led to lack of sleep and deprived mood/withdrawal when not allowed access to the internet. Further in the conclusion, the study confirms that perceived “positive” impacts of internet usage, are actually “motives” instead.

Despite all of this evidence, even the study itself acknowledges the limitations it has, for example lack of in-depth analysis on specific types of content being consumed and generally looking past the individual’s home circumstances. For instance, all/most of the evidence and conclusions made from this study suggest that adolescents should use the internet less to avoid tricking themselves into losing more than they gain. This is a very utilitarian perspective. However, if we were to take a more humanist perspective, you may excuse this addiction to some extent. Humanism, a type of ethical perspective, values autonomy and freedom of choice and expression of an individual i.e adolescents should have the freedom to make their own choices and so if given internet access, it’s not necessarily their fault for negative consequences. Thus leading us to a stance leaning more towards internet access being a human right, as we’re holding adolescents more accountable for their consequences, rather than the fact that they have relatively free internet access.

In addition, this study isn’t supposed to be globally applicable- it studies a western sample, and its conclusions are targeted towards a western reader. Due to digital divide, in some developed countries, internet access isn’t even there, let alone leading adolescents into an addiction as in European/western countries. It’s unreasonable to assume that adolescents there experience the same drawbacks and causes of mental illness, offline or online. Furthermore, more age groups may be affected in different ways across all countries, whilst conclusions made by this study are applicable in some cases, it shouldn’t be taken as the only possible and correct conclusion.

The year of the Internet of 'Critical' Things - Information Age

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Conclusion

In all, I think that internet access should be a human right slightly more than not. It’s access should be emphasised more in developing countries as opposed to western countries, however it can be hard to gauge when regulation of the internet should start happening in any country, especially accounting for the population having experience with internet access.

I believe that education about the internet- benefits and consequences- should be implemented in either case, with either being more emphasised depending on the country and circumstances in order to give people a more balanced outlook to decide for themselves.

 

 

 

Sources:

UN documentation: https://cdnp.prod.managebac.com/uploads/asset/file/48791847/Internet_Statement_Adopted.pdf?Expires=1618454690&Signature=ZcvYalLvPEnGJoqD~m7XOaVmZePUi9N0i4NCm1zfMRWhrPhUiihOtlslVvS4M6O62I8xpWjODIwjAc1CAzx-SBqq7Y-2GjUcjhsivB5Ac3NgAWbznCOz90ImggA-He9nYDUF4Mc~DVeE-v3WuCZ-stf6VCtFAKfesY4k2mhDbIMzqjBB3NsCz3ofLMNjjyO3wcAZmAgsXLPQYyA0joHAcnY3hv7k9ZKqXfE76F9xeE0dkP1aRuIUD~x-zcZQCyZ9nwH2BgV9wN7vTX1S1WAE7lAR9CLoMkfiXdiIi9sfBp~S8DemjNs-xjjQqPxkGQ-pp57urBZ1voB3Stf6yaYP9Q__&Key-Pair-Id=APKAIONV4W2WDGROD6WA

UAB institute blog: https://sites.uab.edu/humanrights/2020/10/12/is-internet-access-a-human-right/

Article from Independant: https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/gadgets-and-tech/un-declares-online-freedom-to-be-a-human-right-that-must-be-protected-a7120186.html

Myanmar: https://thediplomat.com/2021/04/myanmars-unsustainable-social-media-shutdown/ 

Myanmar internet shutdown: https://www.voanews.com/east-asia-pacific/myanmar-junta-orders-shutdown-internet-providers-say 

More: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2021/apr/02/myanmar-coup-military-expands-internet-shutdown 

Why coup happened: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-55902070 

Percentage with internet access: https://www.statista.com/statistics/617136/digital-population-worldwide/#:~:text=How%20many%20people%20use%20the,the%20internet%20via%20mobile%20devices.

More meta stats: https://ourworldindata.org/internet

Even more meta stats: https://smallbiztrends.com/2020/03/2020-mobile-phone-usage-statistics.html#:~:text=A%20study%20reveals%2066%25%20of,Love%20Affair%20with%20their%20Phones.

Confirmation bias: https://www.simplypsychology.org/confirmation-bias.html

Attention span stats: https://www.wyzowl.com/human-attention-span/#:~:text=According%20to%20research%2C%20our%20attention,or%20object%20for%209%20seconds.

FOMO study 1: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/2018-59228-003

FOMO study 2: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S235285321730007X

Mental health and the internet study: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4963606/

Humanism: https://americanhumanist.org/what-is-humanism/definition-of-humanism/

 

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