Internet access as a right

February 6, 2007

An article on the BBC News website today covers a story about the Indian President last year outlining his future hopes for free Internet access for everyone in India. Ambitious, non? Not only is the sheer logistical challenge of such a dream almost insurmountable, but any capitalists out there will be turning into enraged beetroots as we speak. Just think of all the lost revenue!

To start, let’s look at the first complaint. Doubters are right to point out the mountains of difficulty anyone attempting such a technological feat wouild encounter. But the Indians have done it before. In 2004 the state of Gujarat announced that they intended to have electricity in all their villages within two years. All the other Indian states had a good laugh at this claim, as did much of the world, but by golly they actually managed it in the end. With electricity now piped to all Gujarati villages, businesses and economic growth has flourished in previously declining rural areas. This growth means an increased likelihood of better health care and living standards, and of course gives the villagers of Gujarat a good reason to be smug.

…But can it be done with internet connections, and is it fair to deprive telecons of a business that some might say is rightly theres? Lawrence Lessig, copyfighter extraordinaire and founder of the Creative Commons, wrote about similar arguments a few years ago in Philadelphia:

“In September, I reported that Philadelphia was considering funding a WiFi service for the city. Sixty percent of the citizens have no access to broadband. The city elders believe that’s no way to enter the 21st century.

But as Public Knowledge now reports, a bill on the Governor’s desk would now make it impossible for Philadelphia to offer such a service, because it “competes” with private businesses offering the same service.

So, let’s see: If I open a private street light company, selling the photons my lights give off, can Philadelphia offer “free” street lights? Or does the fact that Guards To Go offers services in Philadelphia mean we need to disband the Philly police department?”

If governments and councils are there to fundamentally ensure the enrichment of the lives of those people who elect them, how can they not at least consider something so useful as internet access for all? In suburban London, unlike rural India, there are plenty of businesses out there who can supply you with broadband access, but that shouldn’t mean that democratic organisations can’t.