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Offline: The invisible underclass

High-speed internet access is essential for a true 21st-century society. So why are one in four Britons going without? Tim Walker argues that broadband is fast becoming a human right

It may lie just 50km east of Helsinki, but the island of Emsalö might as well be on the Moon. An idyllic community of forests and quiet coves, it is linked to the mainland by a single road and, perhaps even more crucially, an internet connection with a maximum speed of only eight megabytes-per-second. Last October, however, Finland became the first country to enshrine broadband as a fundamental human right, when the Finnish Ministry of Transport and Communications promised that all its 5.5 million inhabitants would have access to a 100mbps connection by 2015.

There are arguments over who will fund the cost of connecting some of the country's more remote areas but, as an intermediate measure, every Finn – even those in the Arctic far North – will get a 1mps connection within 2km of their home by July this year. Instead of waiting for the government and the telecoms companies to work out their differences, though, Emsalö's island residents have clubbed together to pay for the fibre-optic cable that will upgrade their internet access to super-fast broadband.

The same thing is happening in Britain, where Government plans to roll out broadband to the whole country are somewhat less advanced. Fifty residents of Lyddington, a village in Rutland, raised £37,000 to connect their community to super-fast broadband when the major telecoms providers refused to install the necessary cable. Until recently, Lyddington's villagers were unable use basic services such as the BBC's iPlayer, or even download music from iTunes. Though it took them two years to navigate the process, they now have a 40mbps connection. Access to the broadband speeds necessary for full interaction with the web will be as important in the near future as roads, telephone coverage or a free media: an essential element of a developed society. In 2003, the UN's World Summit on the Information Society suggested that internet access ought to be declared a basic human right, as part of an attempt to bridge the global digital divide. A poll conducted for the BBC earlier this year, of 27,000 people in 26 countries, found that almost 80 per cent believe access to the web is indeed a fundamental right.

Dr David Lewis, the managing director of Rutland Telecom, the tiny firm established to connect Lyddington, says he has received hundreds of enquiries from other rural communities that want to be connected. "The web is more than a utility," he says. "It's essential."

One in four people in Britain is estimated to have an inadequate broadband connection, many in more isolated rural areas. In fact, up to 10 million adults in the UK have never used the internet at all, and four million of them are among the most disadvantaged members of society. These are the people the Labour government's RaceOnline2012 initiative – headed by digital inclusion champion Martha Lane Fox – was hoping to get online before the London Olympics.

In a pre-election speech, Gordon Brown described those without internet access as "trapped in a second tier of citizenship, denied what I increasingly think of as a fundamental freedom in the modern world." Yet despite Conservative and Liberal Democrat pledges to deliver at least 2mbps to the entire country in the next two years, and "next generation" broadband to 90 per cent of Britain by 2017, some experts suggest the UK is falling behind the leading digital nations. Mark Seemann is the product strategy and development director of Outsourcery, a business communications consultancy. He was one of the first people in the UK to bring wireless broadband to his local community without the aid of major providers, when in 2004 he had a broadband antenna attached to the spire of St Peter's Church in Market Bosworth, Leicestershire.

"The coalition Government needs to cut costs so they're going to move a lot of their services online," says Seemann. "Those services are simple form-filling for now, but that will change. I see, for instance, the NHS help line going online and using more video conferencing. Communities in areas without sufficient broadband aren't going to be able to use those services. Also, businesses these days have employees working from home, therefore home user access to broadband is as critical as head office having broadband.

"It's a governmental responsibility to provide those connections. If commercial organisations were responsible for the transport system, then because of the economical inviability of bringing roads into rural areas, they would simply leave them with dirt tracks. That's exactly what's happening with broadband. The original telephone network only came about through the government. Once it was established it then got privatised. But the broadband roll out is in the hands of companies that have shareholders." Indeed, last week BT pledged to bring high-speed broadband to two-third of British households by 2015, a move that will cost the company £1bn.

In France and Greece, the right to internet access has now been written into law. The government of Estonia declared it a human right as long ago as 2000. The number of internet users in a country correlates predictably with GDP per capita, hence Scandinavia is the world's most wired region, with North America and the rest of Western Europe not far behind. (Despite the national digital divide and experts' apprehension about future competitiveness, the UK is one of the world's better-connected countries.) The relationship between GDP per capita and internet access is a virtuous circle: broadband drives business, boosting an economy and increasing its capacity for better communications.

Web usage correlates with education, too. College towns are the best connected in the world, according to a recent "State of the Internet" report from Akamai Technologies, which found that Berkeley, California had the highest average connection speeds. The UK's highest-ranked town was Oxford; Cambridge also featured in the global top 100. The high internet usage of their student populations merely emphasises its importance to education.

The internet is far more revolutionary than past telecommunications technologies," says Professor Peter Cochrane, futurologist and former Chief Technologist at BT. "It impacts education, healthcare, industry at every level. Look at the employment and creativity of people without the net or enough bandwidth: they cannot succeed. Google is scanning 10,000 books per week. Gradually the information of the world is becoming available on the internet. Not to be able to access that is a travesty."

Developing nations nowadays attribute a substantial proportion of their economic progress to the internet as a generator of wealth. Does access to the internet also drive better governance in those countries, and were it a recognised human right, would it thus encourage the spread of other human rights? The aforementioned BBC survey suggested almost four in five people believe internet access has also brought them greater freedom.

Not everyone agrees, however. In a recent piece for Foreign Policy magazine, Evgeny Morozov – a Belorussian-born blogger who specialises in the political effects of the internet – suggested the web's power as a force for good has been overrated. Protesters in Iran and Burma, he wrote, were not ultimately triumphant despite the presence of Twitter. Google's incursion into China came with censorship conditions that proved too much for a company with the motto "Don't Be Evil" to bear. As for the internet boosting political participation in democracies such as ours, "Where some see a renewal of civic engagement, others see 'slacktivism', the new favourite pejorative for the shallow, peripheral and fluid political campaigning that seems to thrive on the internet – sometimes at the expense of more effective real-world campaigning."

One recent event that generated plenty of slacktivisim in this country – and even some concerted real-world campaigning – was the passing of the Digital Economy Act during the wash-up period just prior to Parliament's dissolution in April. The Act contains broadband connection commitments alongside powers to suspend the connections of users who illegally fileshare copyrighted material. The Liberal Democrats opposed the Act, while web users were, and are, in uproar at its apparently self-contradictory threats to web freedom. The esteemed academics who make up the Intellectual Property Foresight Forum (IPFF), for example, wrote to the Times describing the Digital Economy Act, and particularly the manner of its passing, as "constitutionally outrageous".

One of the few Labour MPs to oppose the Act was Tom Watson, then the minister for digital engagement. "The net is a way of life for many people," says Watson. "To remove their ability to do what they now do innately is wrong. Young people won't accept these sorts of terms in the future; in a decade it'll be politically unacceptable. Human rights develop; I don't think you make a decision to create them one day. But people should have a right to access to knowledge. The internet facilitates that, so if you restrict people's access to the internet you restrict their access to knowledge. An emerging body of opinion agrees with that, and removing people from that access is not a mark of a civilised society."