Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ I Support Universal Access

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Feb 17, 1997

Posted to HotWired 18 Feb 97

To be clear about my biases from the beginning, I support universal internet access. By that, what I mean is that:

  • People have a right to internet access, subject to the normal conditions and restrictions attached to any right
  • The cost of exercising this right is reasonable, which is to say, not free (except to the very poor), but within the reach of all

My major reason for supporting this position is that it is in the public good to ensure the widest possible internet access. This is because access allows people to obtain resources they need for education or personal development, and it allows them to share their ideas with a wider audience.

I think there are good precedents for universal access in the way I have defined it:

  • Public Roads - we did not always have universal access to public roads. However, it is generally recognized to be good for individuals and business when free (or nearly free) access is provided by the government. Yes, tax dollars pay for roads, however, this has been found to be a more efficient way to maintain an international infastructure.
  • Public Schools - again, public schools are a recent invention. Yet public schools have proven to be so improtant to the social good that attendance at a school - usually a public school - is manditory in many jurisdictions. While provate schools exist, they tend to fulfill niche requirements, such as religious education. For a national school program, publicly funded schools seem to be the way to go.
  • Police and Fire Services - all people have access to these essential services and in most jurisdictions do not have to pay for them. While it is possible to pay for private security, most jurisdictions agree that a publicly funded police and fire force is essential to well-being and security.
I could extend this list with many more examples, but you get my point. If a service is important enough to the well-being of society, we consider it worth-while to ensure that it is universally accessible. The $64 billion question is: is the same true of the internet?

I think that the answer is inarguably 'yes'. For the internet serves the same function as many of the services listed above, only more efficiently. In a way, it acts as a school system, a library, and a highway. Because of the enormous potential benefit to society made possible by the internet, I think that universal access is a reasonable goal.

Critics of universal access argue that the free market is best left alone. They argue that the most efficient way to establish widespread internet access is to let private enterprise do it. Finally, they argue that the cost far outweighs the benefits.

Historical evidence argues against this line of reasoning at every turn. Left to its own devices, free enterprise did almost nothing in the way of infastructure development. While there were scattered efforts to establish private roads, sewage systems, police forces, and the like, until the government stepped in these in no way resembled an infastructure.

Private industry is not interested in infastructure development. This is because it requires a major investment (in the order of trillions of dollars) before it begins to show a return. And often, it never shows a return. The usefulness of infastructure comes in the fact that we don't need to worry about the cost of using it on a case-to-case basis. Therefore, the creation of infastructure is best left to an institution which does not have profit as its ultimate motive, but rather, has as its ultimate motive the social good.

The internet looks large enough now that some company could probably come in and start making a lot of money. But to do so severely limits the internet's usefulness, just as would a road system with a toll booth at the end of every driveway (mind you, that *would* decrease traffic problems).

Some other points:

1. Today's commentator suggested that the American telephone system, the "best in the world", was built by private industry. Americans often make the claim that their system is the best, but almost never with evidence to support this claim. As a Canadian, I would contend that our system is equally good if not better (probably better), and it was created by government, not private industry. So much for that argument.

2. Some posts in the thread carried lengthy quotes of the U.S. Constitution, court judgements, and the like. While these may be relevant to American readers, they are not relevant generally. Neither to they carry any argumentative force since they are nothing more than argument from authority. The courts and the constitution allowed slavery for many years. That was wrong. Thus, the courts and the constitution can be wrong.

3. If KMart and McDonald's can profit from the poor, why can't the telcos? First response: it is wrong for KMart and McDonald (especially the latter) to profit from the poor by providing substandard, and in some cases dangerous, goods. Two wrongs do not make a right. Second response: in no way do KMart nor McDonalds provide an essential service or infastructure.

Finally: the writer from Belgium (third or fourth posts) makes a set of sound arguments (which were essentially ignored by the discussants). I reiterate those points here and add my thorough support for them.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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