My Corner of the ‘Net

Is the Internet an inalienable right? Part 1

Posted on | February 15, 2013 | No Comments

Two weeks ago a German court ruled that access to the Internet is an “essential medium” in day-to-day life. This came from a court ruling about a man who was unable to use his phone and Internet connection for two months. He was paid back for the cost of using a cellphone, but not for the lost use of the Internet. However, under German law a person can be compensated for the “loss of use of essential materials”. This forms an interesting legal precedent: in Germany online access is an essential service similar to a refrigerator, bed, stove, or anything that is a day-to-day necessity to living. This comes from a standing law that it’s illegal to impound any of those items due to their vital importance to living ones life.

As a landmark case, it brings up questions about why online access is so critical as well: what exactly about the Internet is so vital in maintaining ones lifestyle? Is it the access to communication via e-mail and online chat? Or perhaps being able to use online banking or other vital financial services? Maybe internetworked connectivity has simply become so very important because nearly everyone uses it now?

The question becomes: at what point did the Internet become something so vital, that not having it would hinder our ability to live our lives? Somewhere along the line it turned into a utility as critical as electricity, gas, and water. Looking back upon history, one can see that in the early 20th century the same thing happened to the telephone: it was a new method of staying in touch with people, quickly replacing daily multiple mail deliveries as the primary method for people to communicate.

Now, it takes time for any new technology to grow into its own. Initially the telephone was a cumbersome and difficult instrument to use, and only available to the rich with the money to connect their homes to the phone lines or the technicians who were employees of the phone companies. Even then, one had to nearly yell into the receivers to be heard until later improvements were made. And you couldn’t even talk to people directly. You needed to speak with operators first who acted as technical intermediaries, connecting our calls and always potentially listening in to our conversations. Eventually the telephone system became simpler to use, with direct-dialing and cordless receivers with caller ID, speaker phone, and every conceivable extra at the fingertips of the average homeowner.

The Internet’s evolution was almost identical, at one point so technically erudite and complex there was no way for the average person to understand how to use it. E-mail clients were complex to use, based in UNIX and VMS mainframe operating systems and controlled by primitive low-bandwidth modem-friendly ASCII text interfaces. Downloading files wasn’t the simple click-on-a-link process it is today, but involved multiple commands and third-party applications you had to hope were on both of the computers you wanted to transfer files between.

But over time, the Internet was brought to the public at large via the World Wide Web. And much like when the phone system removed the operators as the telephonic middle-man, the applications involved in transferring information became streamlined through this new protocol into a tool anyone could use.

It is when such a highly technical and powerful system becomes so simple to use that the laymen integrates it into their lives, and with the promise of the sheer number of communication options offered by the Internet, the world quickly welcomed it into their households. From there it rapidly became something they couldn’t live without.

Indeed that is the turning point for any new technology, be it water, electricity, phone, or Internet: when it becomes a replacement, and also an improvement over, the old way of doing things. Keep it around for long enough, and it becomes the new normal. It has made the jump from novelty to requirement, and there is no way to take it back. Imagine the strife, the uprising and revolution that would happen if such an all-inclusive and powerful communication tool were taken away from the public at large. The skirmishes over SOPA, that being the mere proposal of bringing stricter laws to the Internet, would seem like a kindergarten field-trip in comparison.

Machiavelli once wrote in advisement to future kings, it is important to withhold gifts from your subjects at the start of your reign and give them later, rather than provide those gifts at the start only to eventually take them away. Over the last ten years Internet access has become absolutely integral to the lives of everyone who has used it regularly. And over the last five most people have even had it on their phones, becoming an inseparable side-kick that helps us guide our cars across town and settle arguments about which actor or actress starred in which movie.

But imagine if the stakes became higher? What if not just institutions like colleges and companies, and people’s homes were on the Internet, but every single person in an entire nation had free access?

 

That’s exactly what the FCC has in mind.

Upcoming in part 2: Free National WiFi

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