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Ombudsman calls for Constitutional right to internet access

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The federal ombudsman service has issued an opinion to parliament in which it calls for the right to internet access for all to be included in the Constitution.

The Belgian constitution, adopted in 1831 in the early days of the new state, was founded on five fundamental freedoms: freedom of education, of the press, of expression, association and religion.

The five freedoms are laid out on the ground in Brussels, in the street names around Place de la Liberté, appropriately enough.

Since those early days, Belgians have seen their rights extended, but nowadays the process happens elsewhere – in the courts, through the European Union or the European Convention (and Court) on Human Rights.

The ombudsman bases the argument for a constitutional right to internet access on sheer ubiquity – the internet is everywhere, and sometimes in very crucial areas.

The internet is no longer just a gateway to entertainment and information, it is an indispensable channel for accessing public services. The health crisis has accelerated the digitisation of society and forced citizens to make greater use of the internet to handle many aspects of their lives and administrative procedures.”

One very recent example is the vaccination campaign, where people were notified of their appointments and asked to respond by text, internet or phone. For many people, the first two options simply do not exist.

The service is now asking the parliament to add the right to internet access to Article 23 of the constitution, which covers the right to work, adequate housing and social security – guaranteed rights that are not currently actualised for many people.

According to figures from the Barometer of the Information Society, 7% of Belgians between the age of 16 and 74 have never made use of the internet. At the same time only 59% have used it to access government services like My Minfin, My eBox or Tax-on-web.

The inclusion of this fundamental right in the constitution is a first step towards giving all citizens access to the internet,” the service writes.

In order to reduce the digital divide, we also advocate maintaining alternatives to digitisation and always offering the possibility of direct and human contact.”

Ombudsman David Baele said, “The complaints and signals we receive show that many people do not have the budget, equipment or skills to access the internet. The digitisation of public services should not leave anyone behind. Everyone should be able to carry out their administrative procedures and have their rights asserted.”