John McManus: Rural broadband is as much a human right as access to free water

Maybe the the time is right for a new movement modelled on the water campaign

My  Right2Ruralbroadband movement will be modelled on Right2Water. The first step towards my seat in the Dáil  is to establish that broadband is a human right and a public good

My Right2Ruralbroadband movement will be modelled on Right2Water. The first step towards my seat in the Dáil is to establish that broadband is a human right and a public good

 

I am thinking of starting a populist movement. It might one day become a fringe political party that will dictate national policy on a big issue to larger parties.

But first I will need an issue because the market for a populist movement without an issue of its own has already been cornered by Fianna Fáil under Barry Cowen and Micheál Martin.

I am thinking about broadband and rural broadband in particular. It seems that great swathes of the country are unable to watch Netflix and are getting increasingly exasperated about it.

The movement will be called Right2Ruralbroadband and it will be modelled on Right2Water. It will evolve into a political party along the lines of Solidarity (aka the Anti Austerity Alliance) or People Before Profit. Nearer the time I will have to decide if I want to be a Richard Boyd Barrett or a Paul Murphy. It will not be an easy choice.

The first step towards my seat in the Dáil however is to establish that broadband is a human right and a public good. As a result “it should be freely available to all regardless of wealth or income”, to borrow a phrase from the Right2Water website.

This is not as difficult as it might sound. Anyone who has had to explain to a teenager why access to wifi 24 hours a day is not something to be taken for granted will know that for the younger generation to be denied high-speed access to the internet is to be denied freedom its self.

This argument will resonate in the public consciousness and among the all important disenfranchised youth that we aim to get out on the streets. But something more substantive would be handy for the weekend radio shows and Séan O’Rourke.

Wilful misinterpretation

The good news is that the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights is as helpful to my cause as it is to Right2Water. The declaration may not specifically say you have a right to water but it does have a bit in article 25 about “everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing . . .” This is what we like to call an inferred right.

The declaration is also silent on broadband but that is not surprising because it was written in 1948. However, there appears to be a nugget in article 21 that will do the job. It says : “Everyone has the right to equal access to public service in his country.” Given that article 21 is really about the right of people to participate in Government, some wilful misinterpretation might be required to make it work, but let’s not be picky.

In any case the notion of broadband as a human right is supported by no less person – and a potential patron of the movement – than Denis O’Brien.

As far back as 2014 he told the UN Broadband Commission for Digital Development (of which he was a member) that broadband access is a basic human right. It could be used as a “catalyst” to bring about improved access to healthcare, education and improved inward investment and job creation. He probably would have brought up Netflix but it wasn’t really a thing at that stage.

O’Brien’s assertion is of massive significance for my proto-movement. Not only does it bring some much needed ideological heft to the argument, it should ensure the support of vast swathes of the Irish media.

Panic

Once we have the intellectual argument about the right to free rural broadband perfected the next steps are straight out of the Right2Water play book. First we add a dash of class politics by arguing that broadband charges will “discriminate against working people and the unemployed in favour of the wealthy and are another regressive tax taking vital money out of the pockets of people and out of our economy”. To borrow again from Right2Water.

We then follow up with a public campaign by “activists, citizens, community groups, political parties/individuals and trade unionists” calling for the Government to recognise and legislate for free access to rural broadband as a human right.

After that, all we need is a few byelections or, better still, a general election. We will run Right2Ruralbroadband candidates in key constituencies in which the larger parties are vulnerable.

The pay-off will be twofold. Some of us might actually get elected (happy days!) such are the vagaries of the single transferable vote system. But what we really want to do is panic the bigger parties that should know better – such as Fianna Fáil – into pledging to abolish rural broadband charges and pay for it through “general taxation” should they get into government or the sort of quasi-government that is all the rage at the moment.

We will get them to do this even though people currently getting broadband in rural Ireland already pay for it. Not only that we will get Fianna Fáil to do it, even though they know better than anyone that general taxation is not some bottomless pit and amounts to robbing Peter to pay Paul.

It’s simple really.

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