The Future of American Communications (FACT) working group funded by the Media Democracy Fund released its official report on the 26th of January. The report, which carries the working group’s recommendations to President Obama, offers up some various proposals that purport to hold promise for the future of the Internet.
As the title, “…and communications for all,” suggests though, there is an underlying current of argument that Internet access is a right, and therefore should be treated as a utility (and here, and here). Internet is not a right, it is a privilege and should therefore be treated as such. In the same vein, access to information is not a right; it is a privilege. The Internet is simply a medium to connect to content and information in general. If this is a right, then should every American also be entitled to a computer? Should everyone be given Blackberries on taxpayers’ dime? These would both follow if we assume that Internet connectivity is a “right.”
FACT takes the concept of a “right” to Internet access further, also recommending that government provide training so that people know how to use a computer and access the Internet. At some point, all this gets out of hand. Just as driving isn’t a right and we don’t rely on government to subsidize our cars and train us to drive, Internet is not necessity and should not be given to us by government.
Based on the recommendation of FACT to extend broadband networks to every rural area of the United States and train members of those communities to use computers and the Internet, I would estimate that costs of the project will be roughly in the neighborhood of 1 Godzillion dollars. But at the current rate politicians are throwing government dollars at “infrastructure” projects–see the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus plan–it’s not hard to imagine a future massive broadband initiative sailing through Congress.
The biggest problem with FACT’s recommendations may be they would require all networks to offer open access (wireless networks included) and adhere to the principles of net neutrality. This means that network operators–who will carry the larger burden of the costs of constructing and maintaining these networks–would be forced to run their networks in line with government regulations, instead of in a way that the companies believe best suits consumers. Additionally, if taxpayer-funded networks were to be built in every rural area of the country, at some point government-subsidized networks would outnumber private networks, easing the passage of legislation to enforce neutrality on those networks as well.
These are free market decisions. The bottom line is that if it was in the interest of ISPs to build networks in rural areas, they would have already done so. Expansion of networks should occur as the market demands them. The Internet is not a utility and is not a right. And it is not the duty of the taxpayer to teach individuals how to use it.