The International Day for Universal Access to Information celebrated globally on 28th September 2023 underscored the significance of access to information. This year’s global celebrations held in Oxford, United Kingdom, centred on the role of the online space in ensuring access to information. Access to information is not only a fundamental human right recognised by resolutions like the United Nations General Assembly’s 1946 resolution 59 and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), but it is also enshrined in the Constitution of Kenya. The Kenyan Constitution guarantees individuals the right to access information and data held in the private and public sectors, mandating public institutions to publish and publicise information that impacts the general population. Additionally, it empowers every person to correct or delete any “untrue or misleading information that affects the person.”
Why is the right to access information important?
The right to access information serves as a cornerstone for individual and societal well-being. At its core, this right enhances transparency and accountability, ensuring that governments, institutions, and organisations can be held responsible for their actions and decisions. It empowers citizens to make informed choices in various aspects of life, from political participation to consumer decisions, fostering democracy. Access to information is closely intertwined with fundamental human rights, including freedom of expression and the right to know, shielding individuals from abuses of power and protecting them from discrimination.
In the business realm, access to information ensures corporate accountability, safeguarding consumers and the environment. This right also plays a pivotal role in promoting social justice, as it exposes injustices, discrimination, and corruption, fueling advocacy for change. Crucially, access to information can be a matter of life and death during life-threatening crises such as war and global pandemics, guiding individuals in taking critical precautions. In essence, the right to access information is indispensable for the functioning of democratic societies, the protection of human rights, and the advancement of knowledge and progress.
Using online platforms as a means to bolster access to information
The advent of transformative technologies has heralded an era of information access, with the internet at its forefront. The internet has become an instrumental avenue for realising the fundamental right of access to information, offering an expansive digital library that transcends geographical and temporal boundaries. Thanks to the internet, with a few clicks, we are able to access a wealth of information from all across the globe. Yet, this timeless and (arguably) indestructible resource is plagued by challenges such as the pervasive issue of the digital divide. While the internet promises universal access to information, a gap emerges between those who are digitally empowered and those who remain marginalised.
Socioeconomic disparities, limited infrastructure, and a deficiency of digital literacy perpetuate this divide. As a result, a significant portion of the global population is unable to tap into the digital realm, impinging upon their ability to exercise this fundamental right. Statistics by the United Nations indicate that 2.9 billion people in the world (37% of the global population) are not connected to the internet. In remote areas, many people remain disconnected from the internet and online platforms, exacerbating disparities. The unrestricted flow of information empowers individuals and societies alike, fostering informed decision-making and enabling the exercise of our rights. Conversely, when this flow is restricted or hampered, our ability to fully realise and enjoy these rights is compromised.
The issue of collective responsibility
To mitigate the harm caused by the digital divide, it becomes a collective responsibility to uphold the principles underpinning access to information. In our pursuit of narrowing the digital divide and harnessing the internet’s potential to enhance information access, the government of Kenya stands out as a trailblazer. Through the Digital Superhighway, the government endeavours to provide universal broadband availability throughout the country by constructing 100,000km of national fibre optic connectivity network. This expanded infrastructure will create 25,000 public Wi-Fi hotspots as well as Digital Village Smart Hubs in each of Kenya’s 1,450 wards (the country’s lowest administrative units).
The corporate world is increasingly playing a pivotal role in advancing the initiative to bridge the digital divide. One bright example is Safaricom, a prominent player in the ICT space. Safaricom, as a telecommunications company, champions access to information through its services, particularly by providing affordable internet bundles, making it possible for individuals to access valuable information. The “Lipa Mdogo Mdogo” initiative further promotes accessibility by offering affordable payment plans for technological devices, such as mobile phones, which are essential tools for accessing the internet. This initiative addresses the digital divide by helping alleviate socioeconomic imbalances that hinder access to technology. Safaricom’s commitment to connectivity is evident in its extensive 5G network coverage, which enhances high-speed internet access, thus enabling even more people to connect to the digital world.
Mozilla, one of the largest search engines, serves as a valuable repository of information, making it easier for users to find the knowledge they seek. Mozilla operates one of the largest and most widely used search engines, Mozilla Firefox. This search engine serves as a vital gateway to information on the internet. It helps users find a wide range of information quickly and efficiently, contributing to knowledge accessibility. Additionally, the Mozilla Foundation engages in advocacy work centred on building a global movement to protect the free and open web. Mozilla’s mission is to ensure the internet is a global public resource, open and accessible to all. An internet that truly puts people first, where individuals can shape their own experiences and are powerful, safe, and independent.
Similarly, Huawei contributes to the advancement of access to information through its technological innovations and infrastructure development. The company is a major provider of telecommunications equipment which underpins internet access and information transmission. Additionally, Huawei manufactures a diverse range of mobile devices, making modern communication tools accessible to a broad demographic by offering affordable options. As a leader in 5G technology, Huawei’s deployment of the 5G network enhances internet connectivity, thereby facilitating more efficient information access. The company’s global reach and commitment to digital inclusion ensure that people from various regions and backgrounds can participate in the digital age.
The International Day for Universal Access to Information is a reminder of the profound importance of access to information in our lives. In addition to being a right, it is a catalyst for democracy and social justice. In an increasingly digital world, bridging the digital divide is paramount. We must collectively ensure that all human beings have the opportunity to harness the power of the Internet. Together, we can shape a future where the right to access information is realised by all, fostering progress and equality worldwide.