By Kira Allmann and Mike Hazas
Innovative solutions for Internet connectivity constitute one of the most important areas of new and emerging technology development with profound ramifications for the natural environment and human rights. The expansion and enhancement of Internet infrastructure is often pursued in the interest of multifarious goals, ranging from increasing the speed and capacity of existing Internet networks to connecting the unconnected. This submission highlights two interrelated technological risks to human rights associated with Internet infrastructure: the environmental impact of Internet connectivity and the growing disparity in quality of Internet access worldwide. Closing various digital divides in Internet access is integral to ensuring the protection of human rights, and universal Internet access has been declared a UN Sustainable Development Goal. However, progress toward universal access must consider the environmental sustainability of connectivity solutions and take into account how rapid technological advances in Internet connectivity might exacerbate certain technological, economic, and social inequalities. Many recent advances in communications technologies, such as 5G, are posited as solutions to inequality of Internet access, but they are likely to result in vast improvements in speed and capacity for already-connected urban centres in the global north while also demanding more energy-consuming infrastructure and encouraging more energy-intensive consumption of digital content. Meanwhile, un- or under-connected communities – largely in the global south – will fall further behind, lacking comparable quality of access and also bearing the brunt of negative environmental consequences. Internet policy has broadly failed to address the intertwined issues of Internet access, sustainable energy, and human rights. Regulators, governments, the human rights system, and private companies should treat Internet expansion as an environmental issue that requires balancing the rising global demand for data against the potentially damaging effects of data- driven energy consumption. The goal of universal Internet access cannot uphold human rights if it is achieved at the cost of the natural environment.