Our 5G future: Light at the end of the tunnel or Internet fast-lane for the elite?

5G promises a major shift in the way the radio spectrum is allocated and used, allowing for a hugely expanded Internet of Things, autonomous cars, and even remote surgery, as well as a dramatic improvement in the speed of content (imagine being able to download 33 HD films in one second). Some also think that reliability of the connection will be improved, which will prove crucial for developing technology like driverless cars.

5G feels promising. But there are perils ahead. As the next big development in mobile connectivity, there is a huge amount of talk and speculation, but we still don’t know exactly what form it will take. It is currently unclear what standards and protocols this new connectivity will use, how much it will cost, or what infrastructure will be needed to implement it. How these decisions are made will drive the impact of 5G on human rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and access to information. 5G could even replace wired Internet, at least in urban centers: this would give even more power to the telcos, centralising power to one stakeholder group, potentially creating a chokehold of control over the Internet: a human right and a vital resource.

All of this makes now the perfect time to rally around 5G discussions, making users and civil society voices heard, and shaping the debate. We need to make sure the 5G-development process incorporates human rights, before business and government interests move forward with development and roll-out, while there is an opportunity to develop new standards through stakeholder participation and transparency.

While it has enormous potential to improve connectivity for users, 5G also poses major risks to human rights, particularly to privacy – as the expansion of the Internet of Things continues unchecked by civil society or political oversight. Another major risk, which might gravely affect both freedom of expression and the freedom of information, is the threat to net neutrality. The principle of ‘net neutrality’ protects the right to access to online content, applications, and Internet services as well as hardware of a user’s choice. It is essential for the sharing of information and ideas on the Internet. The principle of net neutrality also requires that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and governments cannot use their control of the Internet’s infrastructure to block content, prioritise or slow down access to certain applications or services. Without this neutrality, the plurality and diversity of voices on the Internet could be stifled.

Net neutrality may prove to be genuinely threatened by 5G, as the diversity of needs to be met by 5G networks might allow an argument in favour of creating ‘fast lanes’ for certain types of content and special treatment of some data packets, or even ‘bandwidth throttling’. This violation of net neutrality poses more of a danger than just fast streams and special treatment. It might result in the fragmentation of the Internet itself: risking the loss of the benefits of the network in terms of the freedom of expression, and the freedom to receive information.

In July 2016, some of the world’s largest telecoms companies, including BT, Nokia, Orange, and Vodafone, signed a ‘5G Manifesto’, aiming to drive forward the development of the next-generation network. This manifesto has been strongly criticised, as it calls into question the necessity of current net neutrality standards in Europe. The companies claim that the guidelines may limit innovation, warning that the current European net neutrality guidelines ‘create significant uncertainties around 5G’s potential for return on investment’. Tim Berners Lee and the World Wide Web Foundation weighed in shortly afterwards, urging the regulator not to ‘cave in to telecommunications carriers’ manipulative tactics.’

The dichotomy between innovation and human rights is a false one – the best way forward will respect both. Net neutrality guidelines need to safeguard users and small businesses, as well as innovation. Both state and business have a responsibility to respect human rights, and the UN Guiding Principles of Business and Human Rights (The Ruggie Principles) call for a consideration of human rights impacts in the development of business policy and practice. Including those surrounding new technologies like 5G.

Governments and telcos are in a 5G-deployment race. Racing to become the first and the fastest. In this tumultuous situation we must ensure that it does not become a race to the bottom in terms of respecting human rights, and that human rights considerations become an intrinsic part of the 5G discussion. We should move quickly to create coordinated and develop an inclusive action plan on standards, spectrum, and infrastructure development, to stop human rights online from being trampled underfoot as the 5G and other technologies gallop forward.

ARTICLE 19 is closely following the developments surrounding 5G, and is talking to various telco’s about how to deploy and develop 5G technologies whilst respecting human rights. Going forward, we will further focus on ensuring that the different actors engaged in the 5G debate understand the importance of human rights, and that civil society actors understand the issue to become further engaged in the ongoing debate.