Is internet access a human right? Kosta Grammatis thinks it is. His charity ahumanright.org is planning to take the first step towards providing free internet access to the world buy buying an unused satellite, repurposing it and positioning it over developing countries. Apparently buying a satellite isn’t as expensive as you would think it is–ahumanright.org has already raised $37,687 of the $150,000 it needs to buy an unused satellite from soon-to-be-bankrupt Terrestar and hire engineers to fiddle with it until it’s ready to beam Google to the underdeveloped, Googleless countries of the world.
My intitial thought was that this all seemed a bit premature; shouldn’t we first be building infrastructure in these countries, good roads and clean drinking water and such? But then Grammatis made a good point, using Malawi’s William Kamkwamba, the famous “Boy Who Harnessed the Wind,” as an example [via Gizmag]:
William couldn’t afford the US$80 per year it cost to attend school so he spent his time at the library instead … over the span of four years he re-invented the windmill to provide himself with electricity. He shared his first Google experience with journalists: ‘He said, Do you know Google? and I said, What animal is a Google? And when I Googled windmill I found there was millions of applications! I said, Where was this Google all this time?!’”
It’s easy to be glib about internet access. My first cynical thought was “Oh no, billions of people are missing out on LOLcats and sad Keanu eating a sandwich!” Of course, if someone said they were, say, building libraries in developing countries, everyone would be 100 percent behind that. This is really no different. The project would essentially open up huge stores of information to people who otherwise wouldn’t have access to it. This is not to say we should ignore investing in infrastructure; obviously if someone doesn’t have electricity, they can’t power their computer to read something on the internet. Still, as a complementary goal, it’s hard to argue with the idea of providing billions of people with free web access.
The plan goes way beyond the one satellite. Grammatis hopes to eventually raise $245 million to provide the whole world with free internet access. This has implications way beyond helping poor Malawians build windmills. As we saw with Mubarak’s move to shut down Egypt’s internet, the web can be a powerful tool for both organizing grassroots movements and spreading human rights messages around the world. Mubarak was able to limit his citizens’ internet access because today there are physical choke points that can be cut off. If, however, there were satellites positioned over Egypt providing free access, that would be a lot harder to do. As more and more of our information is primarily stored and shared on the internet, maybe it is time to start considering it a fundamental human right.