Why the battle for basic Internet access is a critical human rights issue

What would you do if you couldn’t log onto the Internet?


Chris Osterndorf

Internet Culture

Published Jul 3, 2015   Updated May 28, 2021, 10:38 am CDT

What would you do if you couldn’t log onto the Internet?

You’re reading this, so obviously that question doesn’t apply to you. But as ProPublica recently reported, approximately 20 states currently have restrictions on municipal broadband in place, thanks largely to aggressive lobbying on the part of the telecom industry to prevent city-run broadband from becoming a reality. The problem with this is that the Federal Communications Commission already ruled that local municipalities are allowed to act as service providers earlier this year. The attorneys general in those states recently filed lawsuits to overturn that ruling and prevent towns in their states from being granted publicly funded Internet.

Though not immediately evident, what’s at stake here is the function of the Internet on a state-by-state, city-by-city, sometimes home-by-home level. Because denying municipal broadband is a human rights issue, in an age where the Internet has become a basic human right.

Telecom giants want to continue to sell their services in packages, bundling together as much as they can, in an attempt to make customers pay for more than they want. It’s why you can’t usually subscribe to cable channels on a case-by-case basis. But as more people are relying on the Internet for the bulk of their entertainment—including to watch TV—basic Internet access is becoming telecom’s bread and butter. In fact, Comcast now makes more off Internet than they do off cable.

What’s at stake here is the function of the Internet on a state-by-state, city-by-city, sometimes home-by-home level. 

For successful urbanites, this works fine, and it’s certainly OK for the telecom industry. But for those living in smaller, rural communities, where companies like Comcast don’t operate, other access points to the Internet have to be established. The telecom industry fears that once smaller communities start offering their own broadband, larger cities will do the same. However, even if this does happen, it needn’t automatically make the telecom industry obsolete.

Essentially, companies like AT&T and Time Warner would act as government contractors, hired out by individual municipalities to provide service to their citizens. Right now, the U.S. is falling behind in Internet speed and affordability, while countries in Europe and Asia experience faster Internet for lower prices. In cities like Seoul, the government subsidizes the cost of Internet to keep those prices low. Meanwhile, American cities like Chattanooga, Tennessee; Lafayette, Louisiana; and Bristol, Virginia enjoy similar high-speed Internet, thanks to city-run networks and start-up services.

The system works, and the result is affordable Internet access for everybody. If you use the Internet every day, it is already akin to another public utility—like gas, water, or electricity. Shifting the role of the telecom industry would merely cement that.

Government-provided services are almost always messy. But when it comes to basic human needs, such as education and safety (not to mention health care), they are also essential. The United Nations, in particular, has fought for a democratized Internet, following cases in the United Kingdom and France wherein copyright violators were forcibly kicked offline. In response, the U.N. urged governments to “ensure that Internet access is maintained at all times, including during times of political unrest.” 

The report continues:

The Internet is one of the most powerful instruments of the 21st century for increasing transparency in the conduct of the powerful, access to information, and for facilitating active citizen participation in building democratic societies.

Indeed, the recent wave of demonstrations in countries across the Middle East and North African region has shown the key role that the Internet can play in mobilizing the population to call for justice, equality, accountability and better respect for human rights.

Discussing the U.N. ruling at ForeignPolicy.com, David Rothkopf, founder and CEO of the Foreign Policy Group, wrote: “The thrust of these arguments converges on a single point: It is difficult, if not impossible in some places, to participate fully in today’s world without an open, available Internet. This will become even truer as access is increasingly required to win and perform jobs, gather news, participate in politics, receive education, connect with health-care systems, and engage in basic financial services.”

As Rothkopf explains, Internet access is becoming critical in today’s America, as 77 percent of Americans argued in 2014 poll from the Centre for International Governance Innovation that the Web is a basic human right—on the level of food, water, or shelter. The CIGI argued that the survey shows just how “important the internet has come to freedom of expression, freedom of association, social communication, the generation of new knowledge, and economic opportunity and growth.”

But it’s about more than the abstract ideas of democracy—with a number of goods and services moving to the Web, accessing daily necessities may be impossible for those who might otherwise lack them. Enrolling in Obamacare, for instance, might prove difficult without the broadband to access the website. Getting one’s groceries delivered in neighborhoods battling food insecurity and residents lacking access to a nearby grocery store is much harder without being able to log onto sites like Instacart, FreshDirect, or Peapod.

But it’s about more than the abstract ideas of democracy—with a number of goods and services moving to the Web, accessing daily necessities may be difficult for those who might otherwise lack them. 

These issues affect many, many more Americans than you might suppose: 1 in 6 Americans are currently food insecure, and an even larger amount lack Internet access—nearly 20 percent. While statistics show that 2 percent of Americans (6.3 million people) have no options for Internet at all, others opt out because of prohibitive costs or slow speeds. What’s the point of getting Internet if the service provided to you is barely operational?

Many of these Americans are racial minorities, elderly, or live in impoverished rural communities, those who are already economically disadvantaged and in danger of being left behind. Providing these Americans with low-cost, reliable, easy-to-use Internet will make a huge difference—not only in lessening the gaps between the haves and have nots but in helping people go about their daily lives.

At ProPublica, Leticia Miranda describes how “for 12 years, Eva VanHook, 39, of Georgetown, Tennessee, lived with a satellite broadband connection so slow that she’d read a book while waiting for a Web page to load. In order for her son to access online materials for his school assignments, she’d drive him 12 miles to their church parking lot, where he could access faster WiFi.”

Eva is the exact kind of person that municipal broadband is designed to help. Did she have access to the Internet in theory? Yes, but it worked like a dried up faucet, unable to give her what she really needed. As Miranda writes, “Charter, the local Internet service provider, declined several requests by her husband to build lines out to her home. Only last month did Charter connect her home to the Internet.”

But as important as Internet access is to people like Eva, critics remain unsure that it qualifies as a human right. Ironically, given his organization’s favorable view on municipal broadband, FCC Commissioner Rudy Takala has argued against this assertion: “People can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives.” The question is, though: How does he define success? And what will that mean 20 years from now?

As the United States’ prosperity is increasingly dependent on a wired future—powered by electric cars and technologies that wean us off traditional fossil-fuel dependence—the Evas of America will be helpless without the ability to access it. City-wide broadband isn’t the sole solution to our modern human rights crisis, but facing the challenges of today’s world, it’s certainly a start.

Chris Osterndorf is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared on websites such as Mic, Salon, xoJane, the Week, and more. When he’s not writing, Chris enjoys making movies with friends. He lives in Los Angeles.

Photo via spDuchamp/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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*First Published: Jul 3, 2015, 11:33 am CDT