Internet use has become so woven into everyday life that some technology experts say online access should be legally protected, even to the point of considering it a human right.
''It's a social inclusion question,'' said Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre executive director David Vaile, who is alarmed film and music companies have sought to require internet service providers to disconnect individual accounts over unproven piracy allegations.
Mr Vaile said removing online access would potentially disenfranchise people from society. Australian copyright provisions allowing ''fair use'' were substantially less forgiving than US laws and threatened consumers here with losing their online access.
''The number of people who could be chucked off like this is quite huge,'' Mr Vaile said.
Almost two-thirds of Australian homes - more than 5 million households - now have broadband access, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
The federal government wants to expand this access via the planned $43 billion national broadband network, which aims to connect 90 per cent of Australian homes to a high-speed network of 100 megabits per second. The rest would be connected using wireless and satellite technologies.
The call to safeguard online access is not without precedent. In France and Greece, consumers have a legal right to internet access. In Finland and Estonia, it has been enshrined as a human right. Earlier this year, the BBC commissioned a GlobeScan survey of more than 27,000 people in 26 countries that found 79 per cent of adults regarded online access as a fundamental right.
Internet community activist Brett Solomon, the former head of GetUp! and now executive director of AccessNow.org in the US, backed Mr Vaile's call to safeguard online access.
''Access to the internet is both a gateway to other rights and a right unto itself,'' Mr Solomon said, describing it as ''essential to the enjoyment of one's basic human rights''. He said online access was central to freedom of expression. ''Without access … citizens cannot fully participate in modern democracy,'' he said.
Australian Human Rights Commission president Catherine Branson, QC, said the commission had not yet looked at internet access as a human right. But it did recognise internet access may raise issues ''relevant to the right to freedom of expression'' as defined in a United Nations covenant on civil and political rights.