In 2016, the United Nations declared internet access a basic human right and urged that steps be taken to extend internet to the estimated 60% of individuals lacking access worldwide. However, the organization failed to outline how universal access should be effectively and ethically achieved. Specifically, the UN did not analyze whether a market or government-based solution is superior and, correspondingly, the proper scope and size of that solution. The U.S., although technologically-advanced, has an estimated 60 million citizens that lack access. Universal internet access is certainly ideal, but its solution is complicated and will vary by government regime type. In this post, I will focus on expanding internet access in democratic societies like the U.S. I argue that internet access is a basic human right, as it is a means to fulfilling fundamental freedoms, and that government should proliferate internet coverage through imposing market-incentives.
First, one must build a moral structure to characterize the basic human rights that society should protect. I contend that the best manner to characterize human rights is to identify the basic freedoms that society wants to preserve. Specifically, the U.S. has worked to protect freedom of speech and freedom of access to information. If one views these critical freedoms as an ideal end, a means that can reach that end is then normatively desirable. In John Rawls’ first principle of social justice, he states that each person has the same claim to a scheme of basic liberties independent of their societal position. This idea can be applied to the whether internet accessibility should be classified as a basic human right.
Starting with the onset of the technological revolution in the 1990s, it is arguable that a digital identity has become the modern means to fulfilling critical freedoms of speech and access to information, thus making it normatively desirable as a human right. Each year more individuals utilize the internet to share and exchange information. Perhaps most revolutionary, the internet has enabled individuals to participate more directly in governance and influence policy, but also to sell and transact within the e-market. In this manner, internet access is a 21st century prerequisite for fundamental rights. Consequently, Rawls would argue that failing to provide an individual with internet access is denying them of their basic human liberties and must be addressed. Using the “veil of ignorance,” where everyone is at the “original position” unaware of their socio-economic status, Rawls would emphasize that everyone would want internet access for the liberties it promotes, and thus the state should work towards providing internet.
Under this moral structure, a distributive state is permissible and morally preferable as, historically, a market-based system has failed in promoting internet access. Rawls states that laissez-faire capitalism is not viable in securing rights as it only “aims for economic efficiency and growth.” Historically, internet and software providers have confirmed this observation. The telecommunication system is designed so that individuals must purchase their own broadband. Access is not regulated by the government as a public utility, which means that the economically least-advantaged often remain in the digital dark, unable to afford the average broadband fee of $55 per month (not to mention a computer and Wi-Fi router). Thus, the broadband market exemplifies a failure where the market does not expand to include more affordable services. Additionally, the market will arguably not find a near-future solution to expanding access as market and social incentives are misaligned. Specifically, the “vast majority of software is developed to maximize profit, not to deliver social good.” This is best epitomized by U.S. tech companies that have sold hardware to foreign governments that oppress internet access and free speech of their citizens. Overall, a market-based telecommunication system has minimally promoted social equality in internet access, providing further support for a government-based solution.
Despite these aforementioned market failures in providing internet, it is equally important to analyze whether a government-solution could be effective and is necessary. One debate surrounding why Americans still find themselves in the digital dark is that broadband fees are not necessarily cost prohibitive — those who want internet access should then prioritize their finances — but that “data literacy” is particularly low among certain populations who are then hesitant to purchase broadband. If low “data literacy” is a primary barrier to increasing internet saturation, some might argue that government intervention is unnecessary. Friedrich Hayek might claim that customers — not the government — command the best knowledge in deciding what form of internet service is appropriate for themselves. If a customer believes that he or she might rarely use the internet, or is hesitant about purchasing broadband, then that individual could “comparison shop” internet services and choose a lower package. However, I contend that Hayek’s own merits do not apply to the internet access case. Specifically, internet access is not a problem of knowledge and choice within the market, it is an issue of simply having the internet — and thus the liberties promoted by it — or not. The U.S.’s telecommunication system is not designed so customers can “comparison shop” as often certain geographic regions carry only one internet service provider. Likewise, internet services are all fairly equal in price, pointing to a lack of significant market variety for broadband. Ultimately, the market’s lack of choice and its failures to promote internet proliferation provide increasing support for a government solution.
Government solutions are superior at increasing internet saturation because they can protect and promote consumer autonomy within the market. Rawls explains that a property-owning democracy is permissible as it works to disperse wealth ownership, ultimately enabling more individuals to participate within the market without inciting complete government control of the market or the provided service itself. Explicitly, when it comes to internet access, participation in the broadband market is a precondition to critical freedoms. In this case, government solutions demonstrate potential as they can incentivize firms to reach more customers. However, the scope and size of government initiatives must be considered, as some are more costly and others grant the government dangerous authority.
The government could address internet access with various initiatives, but must ensure that their actions do not overstep governmental authority. The first tactic the government may utilize is to completely fund internet services. For example, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio started LinkNYC, replacing obsolete telephone booths with more than 1,000 federally-funded, free Wi-Fi and phone kiosks. The kiosks quickly benefited the homeless, who could research support services and job opportunities, but had a high upfront cost that is arguably unsustainable nationwide. However, Link kiosk funding has since shifted from complete-federal funding to include funds generated by private companies that recognized the potential revenue gain of advertising on the kiosks. Here, the upfront cost may have faced skepticism in an initial cost-benefit analysis, but the program represents a long-term success, specifically in its transition to market-support and funding for social good projects. Despite that, the upfront cost itself could be prohibitive in some cities, thus encouraging the need to explore other state solutions.
Another similar, but perhaps more sustainable, tactic involves government subsidies to households. Historically, internet subsidy programs have demonstrated substantial success. The FCC runs a program called E-Rate, which provides telecommunication discounts for public schools. According to the Department of Education, internet access increased from 35% to 95% within the program’s first five years. If replicated within households, and targeting the least economically advantaged, such a subsidy program could encourage significant success in increasing internet saturation and thus securing individuals’ fundamental liberties. However, the main limitation is cost. In his book “The Problem of Social Cost,” Ronald Coase emphasizes that the “governmental administrative machine is not itself costless” and concludes that market solutions might be more cost-effective and thus superior. Thus, policy makers must remember the aforementioned moral structure in which the internet must be provided to secure fundamental rights.
Government solutions that function by dissolving market influence and placing government authority in complete control are dangerous and morally impermissible. The most extreme solution government could undertake would to create a “government Wi-Fi” service. Here, the scope and size of government intervention is inappropriate and can limit individuals’ rights. In countries such as China and Vietnam, among many others, government provided and monitored Wi-Fi is highly censored and, rather than promoting rights, the government limits freedoms through censorship, filter searches, etc. Explicitly, a fully government controlled internet system enables the government to violate their powers and should not be condoned.
This is an unprecedented era of digital expansion. The internet is no longer an amenity, but a necessary tool to be a productive member in society. The telecommunication sector must have a philanthropic shift of mentality to avert focus from shareholder profits to developing social good, but realistically market profit incentives represent a significant barrier. Government-based solutions, however, can effectively provide market incentives. As with any policy, government initiatives’ scope and size must be analyzed. Most importantly, it must be ensured that government action does not jeopardize citizen rights rather than promoting them.
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