Access control in smart contracts is an approach to regulate who has the authority to perform certain operations in a contract. In most cases, these are operations that are critical to the security and health of the protocol. This includes stopping transfers and withdrawals, performing upgrades, and for example minting new tokens.
Properly implemented access controls define which people are allowed to modify the data in the contract and perform such before mentioned administrative tasks. Furthermore, this function also enables access to be restricted and precisely defines who can interact with the contract at all. As an example, we can take a company that uses Voting Smart Contracts for shareholder voting. Here, of course, it is important to allow access only to an approved list of members that have actually voting rights.