Internet Access as a Right: the FCC’s National Broadband Plan

This post is by Steven Duque from Living in the Future. He is a new contributor to Wall St. Cheat Sheet.

Should internet access be a right? The Federal Communications Commission thinks it should be.

Unveiled on March 16, 2010, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan outlines an ambitious vision to make broadband internet speed ubiquitous and affordable in the United States. As reported in the New York Times:

“Fewer than 27 out of every 100 Americans have broadband service, compared with 33 in South Korea and 38 in the Netherlands. The average advertised download speed is 8 megabits per second; in France, it is 51. And according to a study by the F.C.C., the average download in the United States occurs at about half the advertised speed. Meanwhile, the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable groups remain cut off from broadband technology, and therefore from such things as online government services, medical advice and jobs.”

The plan’s aims, far-reaching in scope, are as follows:

  • Goal 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
  • Goal 2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
  • Goal 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
  • Goal 4: Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.
  • Goal 5: To ensure the safety of Americans, every first responder should have access to a nationwide public safety wireless network.
  • Goal 6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

At roughly 7 times the speed of the internet connection I’m using to write this post (provided by my Comcast cable connection), I’m all for universal broadband. But why should it be a right, if it should be?

The Notion of Rights & The Hohfeldian Analytical System

Talk of ‘rights’ is often muddled, given the varied nature of moral history across cultures. Many, including famed philosopher Jeremy Bentham, think the notion of natural rights are nothing more than “rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” The good news for us plebes is that most modern thinkers — and, more practically, legislators — tend to think otherwise.

In considering whether internet access ought to be a right, it’s helpful, I think, to understand the form of rights, which will provide a framework for looking at the issues at stake. Legal theorist Wesley Hohfeld (1879-1918) articulates four elements of rights (which are known as “The Hohfeldian incidents”) that are particularly useful for this exercise: the privilege, the claim, the power, and the immunity.

For a more technical description of these elements, check out the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy, but I’ll attempt to give a quick and dirty explanation of what these terms mean for those who aren’t as familiar with the ‘φ‘ symbol. For those less theoretically-inclined, feel free to skip to the next section.

  • The privilege (liberties): You have the right to do something because you have no duty not to do that thing. For example, you have the right to pick up a coin that you find on the ground because you have no duty not to pick it up.
  • The claim: You have the right to claim a certain action from someone because s/he has the duty to do that action for you. An employer, for instance, has the right to be paid for her work, because of the duty the employer acknowledged in their contract.
  • The power: You have the right to alter your own or another’s Hohfeldian incidents, if an agreed upon set of rules allows it. A boss, for example, can create a new duty or for her employee or lessen her authority over others, because the rules of employer-employee relationships allow it.
  • The immunity: You have the right to not have your Hohfeldian incidents altered by another person, within a given set of rules. For example, US citizens have immunity from being forced to practice a religion that the government prescribes.

Broadly speaking, there are a lot of different types of rights, and it’s easier to see how rights can come into conflict when we take a look at their different characteristics.

Some Issues at Stake

  • Education. Both scholars and common sense tell us that internet access is one of the biggest pedagogical boons since the invention of the printing press. Beyond being the vastest free repository of information in the history of humankind, interaction with its content provides users with the skill sets needed to survive and thrive in information-based economies. Parsing through large amounts of data and navigating various conceptual categories are among the many skills frequent internet users acquire. So, if education is a right, then it certainly seems to follow that internet access should also be right–especially given the importance of learning outside the classroom.
  • Public Safety & National Security. Since 9/11, the government has failed to create a functional interoperable communication network for first responders to both security threats and natural disasters. The results, as seen during 9/11, can be life-changing. PCMag’s Chloe Albinisius writes: “Police could not warn fire department officials about falling debris. Port Authority police could not tell state police to get out of a building, and so on.” Aside from interoperable communications, ubiquitous internet access would give citizens more immediate, multimedia information about important events from more sources in real-time than other communicative media –  e.g., cable TV, telephone networks.
  • Taxation: While most of the National Broadband Plan is supposed to be covered by television spectrum auctions and private investment, some initiatives, such as the aforementioned public safety interoperable network, will come at the cost of additional fees for broadband users. Though FCC spokesman Rob Kenny claims the fee would be less than a dollar, many uber-libertarian types are angered by yet another tax, clamoring for immunity from such a fee.

The issue is complex, to say the least. In my opinion, the educational and national security claims are large enough to warrant internet access as a right. But what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the comment board below.