Is Accessing the Internet an Entitlement?

To mark last week’s State of the Union address, Michael Beckerman, who is President and CEO of the Internet Association (the uber-lobbying group made up of high tech behemoths birthed last year in the wake of SOPA/PIPA) issued a post on the State of the Internet. It was wonderfully written (congrats to his ghost writer? or I’d like the job!), understandable, and persuasive. Mr. Beckerman extolled the economic and social value the internet has rendered in a short amount of time. All very true.

In his empassioned pitch for why government must not impinge on ‘unprecedented entrepreneurialism, creativity and innovation” he neglected to mention the impact on individual privacy that industry, in its rush to monetize, likes to ignore.

More striking to me, however, was his claim near the wrap-up of his post that “Policy makers must consider Internet access as important as freedom of expression.” That is kind of a big ask. Is Internet access a right? an entitlement? If I’m in a hotel that tries to charge me for wi-fi, I get as annoyed as if they were asking me to pay for the electricity. But I am already paying for the room and to me wi-fi seems a utility, although not one everyone uses.

Certainly the digital divide (arcane term, I know) is a great societal separator, and public funding in my opinion should be available to help bridge it – whether through public libraries, municipal wi-fi or something we haven’t yet even thought of. If policy ultimately dictates that Internet access is a right, who pays for it? does net neutrality finally go away as an issue? what bandwidth is it my right to access? who provides it? who maintains it? where do I go for technical support?

Mr. Beckerman notes that there are rural parts of the U.S. where broadband simply isn’t available, and other places where the price is out of reach. Service Providers seem to be in charge or pricing and infrastructure, so I wonder if Mr. Beckerman is supporting government incentives for them to do so, or for the government to pay the price tag, or something like the Universal Access Charge on your phone bill, or something else entirely?

To be clear, I am very much in favor of Internet access for everyone, and we need a common sense approach. But is it now an entitlement? In an era of unprecedented budget scrutiny, will Internet access come to be weighed against social services or national defense? Hmmmmm. Comments welcome.

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