Romano Prodi | President, World Wide Cooperation, former Primer Minister, Italy

The Right to Connectivity

Thank you so much. I have to repeat my thanks to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and Professor Negroponte, who did a great job in organising this meeting.

It is a real pleasure to discuss this issue because I think it is, and will be, more and more important in the future, but now I want to begin with some general remarks on human rights, which are the fundamental rights to which individuals are entitled simply because they are human beings, regardless of their origin, nationality, race, gender and religion. After the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human rights by the United Nations in 1948, they have become a prominent issue in the agenda of many international institutions, such as United Nations, European Union, of NGOs and also on the agenda of many national sates. The right to life, freedom from torture, slavery, freedom of thought, speech and religion are some the most important human rights, however there is also a set of rights whose status is still in dispute. Amongst these debated rights, the idea that connectivity is a fundamental human right is now, only now, emerging.

According to some analysts and commentators, connectivity is an instrument and not a human right itself: Internet-connected technology like the phone, for example. These critics argue that connectivity cannot be considered a human right, however connectivity is not a simple tool, in my opinion, because when something becomes a necessary instrument for realising human rights, it becomes a full human right in itself. Let me clarify with a few examples. By ensuring success of the dissemination of information online, connectivity is a basic pillar of the right to freedom of opinion and expression. Indeed, the Internet provides the possibility, process and communicating information with a simple click. Of course, connectivity can be applied for evil and criminal goals, such as religious radicalisation, clandestine activity, the spread of fake news, the invasion of privacy and so on, so we know perfectly well that every right can be used as a violation of other people’s rights. However, the real point is to understand whether the absence of connectivity denies human beings of their full potential.

Moreover, we need the advantage provided by connectivity; how to avoid the dangers implied. Indeed connectivity is a powerful instrument for economic and social development. It can be employed in a variety of fields, from increasing agricultural productivity, generation of cheap energy, from providing clean water to improving health.  Connectivity can also increase people’s access to education, health and financial services. As Nicholas Negroponte strongly argued, by offering access to other people, connectivity is a fundamental part of learning, especially for those who haven’t got a school, those who have to do their learning on their own. No doubt, connectivity is therefore crucial for education in the digital age. Actually, we can say that a school without connectivity is not a school, and that all students and teachers have the right to be connected. And for those who are disabled, connectivity is also a life-changer. The same applies for continued education, in particular for senior elders who are mostly excluded from digital resources.

Connectivity can also be used for health activity. For instance, UNICEF is employing the connectivity of mobile phones to prevent the spread of disease in Africa. In other words, being the world’s primary means of enabling learning, delivering knowledge, providing healthcare enhancing culture, saving the environment, creating jobs and understanding each other, the Internet is moved from a commercial service to an essential instrument for expressing all human potentiality, both as individuals and as members of a society.

In the past, connectivity was a privilege: now it is a full human right. Internet access to those to whom it is currently unavailable is therefore a priority that the international community must address. A more connected and open world is richer, more equitable, and a better world. Although great progress has been achieved in terms of the number of Internet users, billions of people in the world still lack connectivity. Today, around 4 billion people are connected to the Internet, which means that more than 3 billion are not. In other worlds, the world is now divided between those who are connected to the net, and those who are not. Moreover, the rate of development of a country or a community is strictly linked to the level of connectivity. Empirical evidence coming from developed and, especially, developing countries, shows the correlation between economic growth and web access. Therefore, the iniquity in the access to the Internet is today unacceptable, and you have the moral obligation to respond immediately to the current situation, and in doing so, empower millions of people, billions of people, who are still denied of this human right. The question then is how to guarantee the condition for access to people who live in remote areas of the world, or in countries where the Internet is limited or controlled. This is one of those important issues that you must discuss today.

But therefore, before concluding and leaving the floor, let me spend a couple of words on the feasibility of connecting the entire planet. Like primary healthcare, public education, and the rule of law, the Internet should be free to all people and low-cost to society. However, free does not equate to suggesting that the right is cost free to everybody. Like public schools, street lights and roads, it becomes the responsibility of the state and society, local, national, global, to build, manage, maintain and subcontract connectivity services in a cheap, competitive and innovative manner. The good news is that the cost to connect every human being is less that 0.1% – I repeat, less than 0.1% – of global military expenditure. Surely this is a small price to pay to elevate the poor, to reduce ignorance, alleviate poverty, share basic knowledge and work towards world peace by better understanding each other. Of course, many other challenges concerning connectivity must be addressed. Some of these challenges will be discussed today, and I am really looking forward to listening to the following presentations. Let me now thank all of the important participants and the organisers of this conference. Now it is our duty to take full advantage of this important opportunity. I wish everyone a very productive conference. Thank you.