Wednesday, February 03, 2010

Yes, Internet Access is a Civil Right

In deference to international readers, I begin by saying that this post is specific to the situation in the United States; but I would love to hear responses both from readers here and abroad.

A reader writes:

Internet access is a civil right? Ha! That assertion just denigrates the passionate fights for real civil rights.
I appreciate this comment because it really made me think.

And I thought about what would happen if poor people were only allowed access to public radio if they paid a monthly fee. And I thought about what would happen if poor people were only allowed to watch public television if they paid a monthly fee. And then I wondered what would happen if poor people were only allowed to check books out of the public library if they paid a monthly fee. And what would happen if poor people were only allowed to go to public school if they paid a monthly fee.

Each of those institutions -- public radio, public television, public library, and public school -- comprise a facet of the intellectual life of all American citizens. To deny access to any of these on the basis of class, race, gender, etc, would not only devalue the potential of the citizenry, but would amount to an infringement of Civil Rights.

It should be no different with regard to access to the Internet.

We need a public system to provide and ensure access for all Americans regardless of where one lives or the ability to pay for a monthly service.

In this time when so many Americans are out of work, we are presented with the opportunity both to re-train and re-employ citizens and spread access throughout the country by means of a public works program for Internet connectivity and community training in digital literacy.

This would be tied to a push for computer manufacturers to step up and help equip all of our nation's schools with 1:1 computing at a reasonable and fair rate; the cost for this 1:1 initiative will be redirected from purchases of paper and printed resources.

The result would be guaranteed free universal Internet access for all Americans.

Yes, I believe firmly that Internet access is a Civil Right. And I welcome suggestions and debate on how to move forward on the issue of once and for all closing the digital divide.


  1. I like this post. I wonder to what extent internet is already freely available at public libraries. Personal internet access is no more a civil right than having a personal library.

    Still mulling this over. Thanks!

  2. This is an important conversation to have. Mr. Kruse, I agree with the point you've made, and in addition I've asked on Twitter, "I think the comparison ignores the fact that traditional broadcasters are not legally compelled to broadcast. Why ISPs?"

    The radio/TV comparison might be very instructive for us, because you might be able to argue that you have the legal right to wifi that is broadcast to your property by somebody who chooses to make it unsecure, so you have the ability to access it for free like radio and TV. But to place the cost expectation on the government (taxpayers) makes it a totally different situation from radio and TV.

  3. I like how you framed this idea. The concept more easily takes root given your comparisons. I think @jerridkruse is somewhat right as well(comment above)in saying what he does.

    Good post.

  4. @Mr. Kruse

    As far as public libraries go, I think they try their best. But they are overwhelmed.

    To take the example of my own town: we've got about a dozen computers available at the local public library -- and we've got about 25,000 citizens in the district. And we're just a little old town up the river from the 750,000 citizens of the city of Baltimore.

    As I mentioned on Twitter, I'm thinking specifically about public broadcasting. And I could see national public ISPs.

    Taxpayers do pay for part of the expense of public broadcasting already: though the majority of funding comes from memberships.

    I could envision a framework that incorporates membership, where benefactors who have the means help provide a service available to anyone for free.

    Great start to this conversation.


  5. Define "access". You aren't implying that the .gov should provide free devices for everyone, are you?

  6. I like this discussion and I think it is a vital one to be having - I wish policymakers would look into this as well (as with other public ventures, they would be the ones to develop tax strategies to ultimately pay for this free access). The intentions are pure and admirable. As with radio, television, literacy, and functioning public schools, computers and mobiles require a certain degree of affluence. Therefore, "universal" still has limitations.

    Naturally, the goal is not to eradicate poverty for all by assuming universal, unfettered Internet access is the key. Rather, it is to urge schools, school boards, administrators, ISPs, and government to recognise the value of Internet access and fight for its prevalence.

    Comparing it to public radio, television, schools, and libraries is helpful in soliciting sympathy for democratic access, but it must be noted that those things have varying levels of access. Borrowing a book is great, but to keep it, one must pay for it. Would public, free Internet be limited in terms of downloading? Not all media is available on public radio - would every website be available in a similar public scheme?

    It is clear that the technology of the Internet (and its supremely democratic offshoots of open source softwares, etc.) has not caught up with - or, rather, has surpassed - the philosophy of free, universal access. Definitely worth investigating.

    In terms of civil rights, it is not illegal (perhaps not even immoral) to deny access to those who can't pay. This is not discrimination based on gender, race, etc. (at least not explicitly); rather it is the perogative of ISPs based on the fundamentals of capitalism. The trend is bucking this rigidity and, frankly, cruelty. I do think the struggle for civil rights is about fundamental dignity; not a call to be included in any system, necessarily, but a righteous declaration that no human should be excluded. Therefore, I do not see universal access to the Internet as a civil right (but still a damn good thing to fight for).

  7. @Mark

    In terms of hardware access, I could see positive benefits for everyone would computer manufacturers and the gov work together to provide need-based wi-fi devices, warranties, and basic digital training to the citizenry -- starting with students. The key word is 'need-based' -- ie, getting devices into the hands of people who can not afford access otherwise.

    Perhaps in many cases, it could be a part of job (re)training and alternative education for folks hit especially hard by the Recession.

    As for wi-fi access, I could see public/non-profit-membership funded wi-fi beaming from the rooftop of every public school in America.


  8. @Colleen

    Great comments.

    Yes, the content provides problems doesn't it? After all, we do not expect porn on public television; yet certainly full access would allow that on the Internet (as in most libraries currently). I don't know what the consensus would be on this and I invite more comment and debate; it's an issue we must hash out.

    As for the prerogatives of ISPs via capitalism, what I'm thinking about is actually a non-profit system of ISPs likely funded by shared gov and membership funding (similar to most public broadcasting).

    Access to (full) content and method of distribution... important questions; what ideas do you all have?


  9. - Not sure if this article was the catalyst for your post but, it's a worthy read.

  10. I thought I'd chime in, having stumbled upon this discussion on Twitter. Having built a large ISP, I can tell you that this is an extremely relevant debate. Shelly does a great job in framing part of the picture. We, as a society, generally accept that the greater good is worth investing in, even subsidizing, so that we may all benefit. Put another way, keeping an relatively educated, healthy, and content populace prevents having your head on a pike.

    I'd like to throw out another edge of the picture. One that gets used a lot, but can't be understated. We standardized plumbing and access to potable water. We electrified the country. We standardized railroads. We standardized interstate roads. We managed spectrum fairly (early days, anyone could broadcast). We even attempted to get at the information superhighway with the Telecom Reform Act of 1996, hoping that market forces would spur competition and ignite growth. It almost worked. But it didn't and we haven't picked up the ball in 10 years.

    Today the US lags in broadband penetration, average speed, hours of use, and other key performance indicators. Not just second or third place, but typically not even in the top 10. This is criminal. Because most of the money for programs to close the gap has been pilfered by corporate interests. It hasn't even been returned to shareholders in bloated dividends, as the telecom sector has underperformed for more than 10 years except for wireless.

    Not to be Captain Obvious, but this matters greatly from an economic development standpoint. Our net job growth, replacing sectors that we cannot compete in with those that we can compete and even trailblaze, is hampered by this lack of infrastructure. Health care? Education? Commerce? Research and development? Food? Transportation? Energy? The single plank missing in any progress on these fronts is poor proliferation of broadband access. Sure, NYC or Austin is fine. But Humboldt County or Lower BFE where people still need access to these services is lacking. Lack of ubiquity means cost and complexity to any solution for the above.

    There's no silver bullet, but putting first, our priority that this needs to get solved, and second, looking at viable and sustainable alternatives to solve it moves the ball into scoring range. The FCC is moving but not fast enough. One option that I support is putting the copper loop infrastructure, currently "owned" by your local monopoly carrier, into a public trust. Service providers could then compete to offer content and applications on top. A variety of funding models would support such a scheme, and minimal recurring cost would be needed for the next 10 years to maintain this infrastructure. With 99.5% of the population in reach of a telephone line, this solves the ubiquity problem. You can even extend that as service providers can use this infrastructure as backhaul for wireless deployments.

    The point being that putting this resource into the hands of the public, where it can then be unleashed to service many constituents across many price points (including free) is the cheapest and fastest route to catch up.

    So I won't go so far as to use the words "access is a right", because my definition of right is pretty high and used for things like life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, I will say that it's a pragmatic investment that will yield benefits for the entire country on multiple fronts. Our leadership here, just as it was for water, electricity, and transportation, has been missing for too long.

  11. I echo much of what has already been said. I like the overall concept and analogies you use, and hear the 'but it is available at the public library' argument too.

    Here in Ypsilanti we have the beginnings of what I imagine could eventually be the type of model used ( although its growth is currently dependent on like-minded people adding repeaters and if possible adding bandwidth.

    I don't know at what point there would be a tragedy of the commons in which usage would increase beyond the available bandwidth.

    Just some thoughts @edmcgovern

  12. One twist on a part of your post: radio and television laws are influenced by the physical properties of the spectrum used for wireless transmission. That is, if there wasn't regulation, then two radio stations in the same city might both try to broadcast on the same frequency, causing problems.

    Also, since encryption of those signals probably wasn't technically possible (at least, affordable) in the early days of TV and radio, there really wasn't much choice but to provide them both for free.

    I don't mean to derail this totally awesome discussion topic, just thought that was an interesting sidebar to consider.

  13. Great debate. A slightly different but not unusual twist... take a page from the cell phone industry. Charge a nominal fee (okay, maybe cell companies overcharge!!!) for WiFi, WiMAX, 3G, whatever, and give away a device (netbook, ipad, etc.). I'll show my K12 bias and say, start with students in K12 schools. I think education is a right and without a mobile device connected to the biggest educational resource on the planet, we're not delivering on this right!

  14. This has been an area that I have really been thinking about since reading Howard Rheingold's Smart Mobs (and the chapter on community wireless). It's especially interesting and important when looking at the race for ubiquitous access in 3g vs wifi (which 3g is winning).

    I think the first course of action is to be sure that it's available at all the libraries. This may be the first step towards true access is just having some place in all communities that has access.

    @Anonymous, wireless Internet transmission is likewise regulated by the FCC and is subject to the same frequency saturation that tv and radio have. Try using your microwave and your wireless router at the same time and you'll see what I mean.

    Another major challenge for public access internet is security. If you were to put up an unsecured public wifi access point, all that data that people are sharing (at least the data that's not encrypted) would be floating around in plaintext for anyone to see. It's illegal, but that's hardly a major deterrent.

    Thanks for the references on wireless Ypsilanti, edmcgovern. I've been meaning to research how different communities are accomplishing the requirements. I personally couldn't contribute to that project at my house in Indianapolis because my ISP has a no-sharing clause in my terms of service. However, it seems that all it would take is a wide enough mesh to reach an ISP that doesn't have such restrictions to get it to spread. And this doesn't seem possible to set up enough repeaters to reach rural communities. There you would really be forced to run cable for miles to make that access possible. My community back home finally got a broadband option this past year, but my cousins still only have dialup as their sole option for Internet connectivity.

    Shelly, I find your question about content restrictions to be very interesting. Additionally, it's one of the main reasons why it's much better for community groups or nonprofits to take on this project. If you let access become a political argument, it will inevitably end up being a filtering and blocked access problem. What is different with Internet access, though, is that there are some means (however ineffective they may be) of stopage and verification. For instance, pornography is inaccessible to truthful individuals under the age of 18. Public tv has no warnings or roadblocks (even ineffective ones like "are you 18") that would stand guard

    This can probably be handled with a terms of use contract when accessing the network. Presumably, we'd need to solve the security issue, so some means of encryption and possibly authentication would be necessary (though authentication isn't necessary just to block an errant user). You could put forth the terms of use (that everyone ignores) when you sign in. But the problem you have is who gets to decide the terms of such a contract. It would be easiest politically and technically to just leave the Internet be.

  15. Without access to information people are powerless. This is why American whites blocked schooling for Blacks and the English banned schooling for Irish Catholics. Thus access IS an essential human right.

    In this century, high speed internet IS information access - just as much as learning to read was in 1860.

    So, refusing to see this as a Civil Right shows a complete disregard for the civil right to have power over your own life.

    - Ira Socol

  16. Sorry, but I find the civil rights comparison some are making to be insulting. Who is being denied access to the internet based on race, creed, gender, etc? Nobody. The question is entirely about convenience, and whether people should have to pay for a service they enjoy *in their homes*.

    Shelly compared internet access to libraries and schools, which is fine, but these services are not brought to each home free of charge. As I said above, the comparison to the public library would be more accurate if we were just talking about offering internet access in the library, vice in each home. Demanding more is a matter of convenience, not civil rights.

  17. @Jason

    I would argue the the digital divide is not a matter of inconvience, but of structural inequity likewise revealed in everything from schooling to infrastructure in our poor neighborhoods city, county, and rural alike.

    As for the "in their homes" argument, we are living in a mobile tech environment. A public service would/should provide access where-ever one may be. With developments in mobile, we're actually talking post-building. So I don't know that that argument would hold up.

    And as for demanding "more", no, I'm just demanding what's fair -- a leveling of the playing field at least in terms of access to information for folks on the wrong side of the digital divide.

    Great discussion, by the way.


  18. @Joel

    Thanks for fleshing out the content/access part of the discussion. I think you make a good point in "letting the Internet be".


    I hear you on the information = power front. Especially when we think beyond the confines of academics and schooling to the practicalities of banking, medicine, and legal services/knowledge-repositories going online. Not to mention the plethora of grants and funding opportunities that are only available via online applications and which often require more sustained work-time than the limits put on public computers in busy city libraries allow.


  19. How about we start small. What if we just started with SMS or text messaging, for instance. Let's provide every student in the U.S... Oh, what the Heck; why don't we go all out and provide everybody with free text messaging. All that's necessary to do that is to provide a basic minimal cell phone account to everyone, and a cell phone. I think I saw a statistic somewhere that we already own more cell phones, or have built more cell phones than we have people. I think we could structure the billing rates such that a minimum account of say 20 minutes a month (about what my 80 something parents use) for free if it were subsidized by the blue tooth headset set.

    That wasn't so hard was it. Now, guess what? Providing free text messaging to all of those cell phones doesn't cost any more. Text messaging is built into the basic elements of cell phone transmission. I know many of us pay more for varying levels of text messaging, but that's all just a billing scam by the cell phone companies. It probably actually costs the cell phone companies more to bill for text messaging than it does provide the service, especially if they send the bills through the mail (snail mail.)

    Once we've developed the model of everyone using text messaging, with links to other utilities, we can use that model to refine the other technologies that have more embedded costs. That kind of a system along with Twitter access and a projector would automatically put a response system in every classroom in the U.S. It would put a response system in every church service, too; every theater presentation, every concert, etc., etc. It would actually take us quite a while to figure out how to deal with all that free capability. Figuring that out could lead us to the next step in the other technologies.

    I haven't yet figured out how to put an link into this comment box, but if you go back to TeachPaperless on Dec. 16,'09 you can find some links from other sources on this that I posted there.

    Thanks, Shelly, for keeping the momentum

  20. At a certain age, Internet access might be appropriate for a right.

  21. I'm totally with you that Internet access in the 21st century is just like library access, public radio etc. I have a post on the right of Internet access here:

  22. This is a post in which opinions really matters. Thank you so much for this.


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