3 de mayo de 2012

Net neutrality and broadband access:
A crucial issue of human rights in Latin America

Escribí este texto hace un año y no lo había publicado. No lo aceptaron como abstract en la conferencia a la cual lo mandé...Un mes después la ONU declaró que el acceso a Internet debía considerarse un derecho humano. Me pareció que valía la pena desempolvarlo hoy.

We must understand that communication is not only a fundamental right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights since 1948, but also that –as UNESCO’s MacBride Report stated in 1980– the right to communicate is a prerequisite for the realization of other human rights.

Since the invention of the first communicating devices, such as the telegraph and the telephone, information and communication technologies (ICT) have been directed to enhance the human capacity to communicate, to skip the geographical and temporal distances by using those technologies. Nevertheless, this concept could be used to disguise ICT as mere instruments to our perception.

In contrast, there are different theoretical approaches to ICT, such as those proposed by researches of communication phenomena like Javier Echeverría (2008) and Manuel Castells (2009). These experts focus their investigation on the social changes they induce, comparing them to those caused by writing, printing or industrialization.

Approaching the study of ICT from the human rights’ perspective, it is valid to emphasize their capacity to build great global, multimedia channels, which are a valuable tool for the defense of human rights. Although, it is also urgent to underline that ICT ––because of the profound impacts they have–– have contributed to the emergence of new human and social rights that we must be comprehend in order to effectively defend them.

To support this thesis, it is sufficient to say that –as human right activist David Sasaki noted in his presentation at the Personal Democracy Forum recently held in Santiago de Chile– with the invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1450, copyright was born in Spain and the Western world. This was claimed by Spanish philologist and printer Antonio Nebrija, author of the first Spanish grammar (1492) and the first dictionary of this language (1495).

When we refer to ICT, we allude to diverse elements and techniques used for treating and transmitting information. These techniques include mainly those related to microelectronics, informatics and telecommunications. Notwithstanding, is the conjunction of all of these factors, personified in the Web, the one that captures the attention, especially when concerning the validity of free communication and expression.

In a recent article in the journal Scientific America, Tim Berners-Lee, its creator, warned that the Web is now more essential to freedom of expression than any other medium, and that its principles are being undermined. In his view, the disconnection is a form of deprivation of our freedom.
The Web, as we have said, is not only a new medium for information and communication, but it is also the needle weaving the Information Society. Furthermore, in this new social space new issues emerge and they are difficult to grasp. In our opinion, the most important among them are the net neutrality and the universal access to broadband (fixed and mobile) which doesn’t only imply to access the service, but also to content, applications, devices and use capabilities.

Currently, a discussion has arisen between two sides. Those who claim for preserving a neutral network ––one in which traffic access and content are clearly separated–– and those who argue that the exponential growth of traffic should lead to the establishment of discriminatory measures to ensure the quality of service in case of potential congestion situations.
Nowadays, the “disconnect” has to do not only with government pressure on the citizens, as happens in countries like China or Iran, but also with new forms of discrimination (nothing else is the digital divide), which are more dynamic and complex that the gaps of the past and are now directly relate to access to broadband. It is clear that the transmission capacity also affects access to services: those with slow connections will have access to simple applications, whereas those with better services can access more sophisticated applications.

In this regard, it is worth to note that, according to one of  the most recently research released by The Economic Commission for Latin America (ECLAC) and The Regional Dialogue on the Information Society (Jordan, 2010), countries in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) have few affordable access plans to households. The cost of megabit per second in these countries is fifteen times higher than in the countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

The penetration levels in the Latin American region ––of 6% for fixed broadband and 4% for mobile broadband–– are lower than the global averages of 8% and 10% respectively. This locates the region below Europe and North America, where over 30% of the population has access to this service. Besides, the average speed offered in the OECD outweighs 12 times that of the Latin American region (30.6 versus 2.5 Mbps).

This disparity in the information society highlights not only the undermining of social duty, but also associates it with a fundamental human right, that of free communication and expression. This right must be defended crucially. In this fight, public awareness is vital, but it particularly needs the decision making from governments in terms of public policies.

It is necessary to legislate to protect net neutrality? According to Berners-Lee’s opinion, yes, it is. “Although the Internet and Web generally thrive on lack of regulation, some basic values have to be legally preserved” (Berners-Lee, 2010). On past July 13, Chile became the first country of ALC to approve ––by 99 votes in favor, zero against and one abstention–– a Net Neutrality Bill.

Is it necessary to legislate to ensure universal access to broadband? In Peru is already under consideration a decree that declares it of public necessity and national interest. Where do we go? In this paper we intend to present a brief panorama of what ––and how––has been done in ALC and what, in our opinion, is there to be done to preserve a fundamental human right.


Berners-Lee, T. (2010) Long live the web: a call for continued open standards and neutrality.  Scientific America, Retrieved from http://www.scientificamerican.com/article.cfm?id=long-live-the-web&page=5
November 24, 2010

Castells, M. (2009). Communication power. New York: Oxford University Press.

Jordán, V. (2010). Banda ancha: la nueva brecha digital. In V. Jordán (Ed.). Acelerando la revolución digital: banda ancha para América Latina y el Caribe (pp. 265). Santiago: Naciones Unidas.

Echeverría, J. (2008). Apropiación social de las tecnologías de la información y la comunicación. CTS, 4(10), 171-182.

Abstract presented for consideration at The TERENA Networking Conference

16 - 19 May 2011, Prague, Czech Republic

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