You pay your water bill, your electric bill, your phone bill. We take for granted that these are basic utilties that most of us need to live healthy, comfortable lives. The services are brought into our homes and we pay to use them, as anyone who’s ever had to pay their own bills understands. They are public utilities, designed to affordably take care of our everyday needs and keep us clean, warm, and safe. It makes sense that everyone is entitled to have those basic needs met. However, an open debate has been raging over whether the internet should be classified as a public utility. The main question is whether or not we are entitled to the internet. Is it a luxury, like cable? Does it go deeper than that; is it something we need on a more fundamental level, such as electricity?
We posted an article on Facebook earlier this month discussing the UN’s recent condemnation of government-ordered disruption of internet services. To break it down further, the United Nations was specifically targeting countries whose governing bodies restrict widespread internet access to their citizens, thus reinforcing that the same rights we have offline should be upheld online as well. Now, the UN cannot legally enforce anything; there’s no UN police that will come after countries that do not support the resolution. The UN is trying to send a message to those regimes that restrict internet access, because some governments have begun to resort to this method as a means of controlling their populaces.
Some of the reasons for internet restrictions are major, such as the throttling of social media sites in Turkey in the aftermath of a terrorist attack; and some of the reasons of internet restriction are less grave, such as Algeria blocking social media to try to prevent students from cheating on tests. Passing a UN resolution in the wake of these deliberate internet blockages conveys a message of net neutrality and the advancement of humanity: the internet is an unending font of creativity and knowledge, and the potential empowerment that comes with those is unparalleled. The resolution itself states that internet access “facilitates vast opportunities for affordable and inclusive education globally … and has the great potential to accelerate human progress .” If huge swaths of the world’s population are unable to access that education, where does that leave humanity in the long run?
Aside from the educational and advancement opportunities the internet can provide, there is the simple matter of us structuring our daily lives to the point where we already depend on the internet. A lot of us pay all of our bills online; how many of you applied for your current job online? We do our banking online, we share our photos online, we even order food online. I don’t think it’s out of left field to predict that we will all rely on the internet for at least one of our basic daily needs someday, if we don’t already. The rise of the Internet of Things is quite possibly a harbinger of things to come, and we may in fact use the internet in some way to complete just about any necessary task. (Yes, out of curiosity, I did Google “wifi toilet;” they do already exist, they cost $5000, and they’re Bluetooth-enabled!)
This brings me back to the question of whether the internet is not just a basic human right, but an actual utility. In April of this year, the FCC voted to allow subsidies for underprivileged Americans to put towards internet access. This is an unprecedented move, but a necessary one, as it will allow for more people to improve their lives by educating themselves or finding jobs online. The internet is more than just cat videos and Facebook; it is possible to get a college degree entirely without leaving your house. When that ability is either restricted or just simply not affordable, people will eventually suffer from the lack of opportunity that could have been easily provided to them. Limiting access to the greatest repository of knowledge humanity has ever known will only hurt us.