Life, Liberty, and Internet?

Josh Smith reports in National Journal that Representative Doris Matsui (D-Calif.), has proposed legislation to provide subsidized Internet services to low-income Americans. The “Broadband Affordability Act of 2011” directs the Federal Communications Commission to establish the program that will reimburse broadband providers for providing reduced-cost services to qualifying low-income residents.

This comes while many progressives have been arguing that Internet access is in fact a “human right.” No doubt Internet access offers a great many benefits, but there are many problems with this claim. Aside from the theoretical question of whether any consumer product can be a “right,” there is no evidence that government subsidization is the best means to ensure wider access. Matsui’s website reports that as of 2010, “28 million Americans do not subscribe to broadband services because of affordability barriers.” This does not take into account accessibility barriers. If Internet access is a right, then why isn’t the government subsidizing computers and smart phones for these Americans as well?

And there more practical issues yet, such as the rampant flaws of these programs and the problems they cause in the affected markets. Adam Thierer has discussed how the cross-subsidization of service in fact harms the market, and Nate Anderson has shown how these programs are prone to mistakes in the distribution of fees. One would think that a tireless advocate for human rights such as Rep. Matsui would care about the ethical implications of these market distortions. But their side is unwilling to learn from these lessons.

Most vexing of all however is Matsui’s declaration that “revenue for the Broadband Lifeline Assistance Program would be generated by the providers and not by taxpayers.” This is simply not true. Companies cannot absorb the USF fees on their own — they are passed onto customers.

As the Free State Foundation has indicated, customers are facing increased charges to support these initiatives. This means telecoms subscribers will be paying for it in their current charges. If you are beginning to feel robbed, you should. That’s just another hand reaching in your pockets.