Here is what I worked up as an opening statement for the IGF 2015 Main Session: Human Rights, Access and Internet Governance Roundtable on Day 4: 13 November, 11:00-13:00, at the Main Meeting Hall
I have been engaged in the provision of access, first to voice telephony and then to Internet, over the past two decades. Compared to expansion of access to other infrastructure services such as electricity and transportation, the ICT efforts have been extremely successful. In my work in government, as well as in our work in research and policy advocacy, we have tried to be mindful of the legal obligations set out in our laws (as well as in international treaty instruments our government is party to). Article 26 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which requires government to act without discrimination and Article 25(3) on equal access to public services were among the most relevant in terms of access policies and implementation.
Active government support for access is associated with a positive-rights approach.
The voice success was achieved by governments stepping back from direct provision and allowing for decentralized solutions, both from private-sector suppliers and by end users.
This meant reduced information flows back to government and reduction, if not elimination, of public policy targeted to specific demographics, which is one of the characteristics of a positive rights-based approach. Governments no longer know for certain who the users of the services are and even where they are. By contrast suppliers know a great deal about users that is of relevance to marketing, but not necessarily of relevance to enforcement of rights.
So for example, universal service/access policies have been targeted to rural areas, not toward the poor per se. These policies were seen as unsuccessful compared to the non-targeted policies of market liberalization, even by the World Bank which actively promoted universal service funds and subsidies.
As with all infrastructure services, the basic approach is one of making the platform available; it is left to citizens and organizations to do what they wish based on the affordances. Governments have not been very effective in targeting subsidies and similar measures, though there appear to be a renewed interest in greater involvement by governments.
An alternative is the negative-rights approach.
Here, public policy is not driven by active efforts to ensure the provision of specified human rights.
Various actors go about their business. Government (or others) step in only when complaints are made (or dangers are perceived to) the narrowly defined rights. For example, governments in both Bangladesh and Pakistan changed the design of the government supported common access centers when they were made aware that the original design which did not take into account local cultural mores would be hostile to use by women. LIRNEasia was among those who brought this issue to the attention of policy makers based on research evidence.
Specifying targets for women users etc. to competitive suppliers may be counterproductive in competitive conditions. Governments should desist from micro-managing private suppliers. Niche strategies that do not seek to cover all population groups are normal in competitive markets. It is only when public resources are involved and when it has been demonstrated that there is a structural failure to supply that there is a response in the negative-right approach.