Mark Trapp

Internet access is a human right

Today, Vint Cerf, chief internet evangelist for Google, had an op-ed piece in the New York Times where he boldly declares internet access is not a human right, and provides an anachronism to demonstrate the weight required to elevate something to the status of a civil or human right:

There is a high bar for something to be considered a human right. Loosely put, it must be among the things we as humans need in order to lead healthy, meaningful lives, like freedom from torture or freedom of conscience. It is a mistake to place any particular technology in this exalted category, since over time we will end up valuing the wrong things. For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.

While Vint Cerf recalls one lesson from history, he ignores another.

Unlimited power

If you don’t have electricity, it is next to impossible to get beyond sustenance farming and improve your condition. It makes nearly every technological advance we’ve made in the last 100 years possible.

While now we associate places without electricity and power as being unconscionable and requiring the assistance of governments (think: sub-Saharan Africa), even way back in the 1920s it was pretty unheard of for developed areas not to have it.

The difference was that, back then, people thought the same way Cerf does: oh well, if it’s an important enabler, everyone should have it and it’ll happen naturally as developed countries who can provide it do so based on market conditions.

And in the United States that worked—for most of the country. In rural Tennessee, nobody came in and provided power. It wasn’t economical. Even though everyone knew power was necessary to have a decent life, that wasn’t a strong enough motivator.

It wasn’t until the 1930s—50 years after Edison rolled out the first electric grid—that the government finally stepped in and mandated that the region’s electrical grid be developed. By the 1950s, the Tennessee Valley was developed. People grew out of poverty. Cities like Nashville, Knoxville, Chattanooga, and Memphis grew and thrived.

Human rights are cost effective

The concern against the government mandate for power, back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, is the same as it is today for internet access: the government would mismanage it and—even though they hadn’t stepped up yet—the private sector would be far better suited to provide it to the people.

Turns out the government was pretty good at setting up the infrastructure in the Tennessee Valley: to this day, the TVA is one of the cheapest producers of power, routinely beating many of its private sector counterparts. And people in Tennessee have ownership of their utilities through the use of co-ops. Electricity through the TVA isn’t grossly mismanaged: the system actually worked.

The TVA isn’t just (an 80-year-long) fluke (that’s helped millions): the intervention of governments to mandate utilities and commodities necessary to improve the human condition has worked time and time again, from roads (2,000+ year success story and counting) to running water to vaccinations.

Where’s the private sector now?

The reason I like the TVA example when talking about the internet as a human right is because rural Tennessee is a perfect microcosm of the private sector’s handling of the internet infrastructure to date. Both the private sector and the government like to claim that, depending on who you talk to, 95-98% of the country has access to broadband internet, but you need only to look to rural Tennessee to see how spurious a claim that is.

Up until 2010, the official definition of broadband was download/upload speeds of 200 kbps. That’s right: if you could secure something slightly faster than a dialup connection, you counted as part of the 95% of the country that had access to broadband. Even with the baseline increase, it’s still 4 Mbps down and 1 Mbps up. Here in Portland, Oregon, I have 30 Mbps down and 10 Mbps up for about $60/month, with an option for 100 Mbps down and up. Other places in the country have even better options. Other places in the world are far better than even what you can get in the United States.

My parents live in a small, rural county in Tennessee. They have three options for internet access, none of which are considered broadband: either they can get dialup access, spend $500/month for a T1 line (1.5 Mbps down/up), or they can spend $70/month for a flaky aDSL line (3 Mbps down, 128 Kbps up). None of the broadband providers in the area will roll their networks outside of the urban areas because it’s not economical. Even with promises of heavy government subsidies, every plan to bring even modest real (read: higher than 10 Mbps down) broadband has fell through.

So while us lucky folk who live in urban technology centers continue to get access to better and better broadband options, rural Tennessee (and many other rural areas in the United States) stay stuck in the past. And the difference only gets worse with each passing year: what will it look like in 5 years? In 10? In 30? Will the private sector ever step up and help the places where it’s not economical for them to do so?

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