Proposed FCC plan expansion raises questions: Is Internet access a right?

The Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday that it was considering a plan to expand the Lifeline phone subsidy program for low-income households to include broadband Internet services

Apichart Weerawong/AP Photo
Lee Thorn, a Vietnam War veteran and founder of the San Francisco-based aid group Jhia Foundation, speaks into a walkie-talkie while testing Internet access on battery-powered laptops in Laos in 2003.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced a plan on Tuesday to expand low-income phone subsidies to include Internet access. This plan is a nod to the increasing importance of the Internet in American life.  

The US government’s Lifeline program currently provides a discount on phone services to individuals and families with incomes below 135 percent of the poverty line. According to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, less than 48 percent of households making less than $25,000 per year have Internet access.

In a blog post Tuesday, Mr. Wheeler and FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn explained the reasoning behind the proposed Lifeline expansion. Like many other Internet access advocates, they argue that Internet access is now essential to American life and that the government can take steps to bridge the digital divide, the gap in Internet access between rich and poor.  

“Internet access has become a pre-requisite for full participation in our economy and our society,” wrote Mr. Wheeler and Ms. Clyburn, “but nearly one in five Americans is still not benefiting from the opportunities made possible by the most powerful and pervasive platform in history.”

The program’s expansion raises questions that will be crucial to the future of Internet services. Is Internet access a right as much as it is a necessity?

Many argue that it is.

In 2011, Frank LaRue, the United Nation’s Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, gave a famous report that recommended member states make Internet access widely available and affordable to all citizens. Mr. LaRue based this recommendation on the fact that the Internet is now an “indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights.”

As long ago as 2010, a worldwide poll of adult Internet users found that four out of five believed that Internet access was a right.

Web founder Tim Berners Lee joined the discussion on the side of access advocates. “It’s time to recognize the internet as a basic human right,” said Mr. Lee, “That means guaranteeing affordable access for all, ensuring Internet packets are delivered without commercial or political discrimination, and protecting the privacy and freedom of web users regardless of where they live.”

The Internet is also now inextricably tied to schooling. Education may be the great equalizer, but a lack of Internet access can prevent children who live near the poverty line from achieving educational equality.

“For me, a mother trying to finish my college degree while raising two children, having Internet at home isn’t a luxury,” said rural Mississippi mother and Lifeline subscriber Chivona Roberts, “it’s a necessity.”

According to FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, seven out of ten teachers now require students to do homework online.

Last month, The New York Times reported that many children without Internet access at home are forced to ride school buses for hours in order to do their homework, much of which is assigned or posted online.

The digital divide has created a homework divide, say Lifeline advocates, that keeps children behind through no fault of their own. The right to education itself is recognized as a human right.

"Internet access is such a fundamental part of learning that by extension it is almost certainly a human right,” said MIT Media Lab founder and Internet access advocate Nicholas Negroponte, “It’s not so much the knowledge. It’s not the Wikipedia but it’s the connection to others, particularly kids to other kids – peer to peer learning.”

Others agree that connectivity is a fundamentally important part of Internet access.

“The reason the FCC is promoting the expansion of Lifeline,” says American Enterprise Institute visiting scholar Daniel Lyons in a phone interview with The Christian Science Monitor, “is because it is valuable for all members of society to be digitally connected.”

Digital connectivity can improve social lives and provide paths to progress for individuals across the social spectrum, says Mr. Lyons.

Critics of Internet access as a right say that although freedom of expression is indeed a human right, the Internet is a means to an end where expression is concerned, not expression itself.

Is it the government’s responsibility to provide access to the Internet?

“I think that it is helpful for the government to subsidize access,” says Lyons. “But I don’t think it is a duty or entitlement in the same way as Social Security.”

The Lifeline program itself has always had critics. Unlike line item programs such as SNAP (food stamps), Lifeline is funded by a Universal Service Fund tax on consumer phone bills, some are concerned that the proposed expansion could hurt consumers.

The program’s current budget is $1.5 billion. The expanded plan, with broadband Internet included, will raise the budget to $2.25 billion. Critics like FCC Commissioner Michael O’Reilly say that the increase in spending is “a recipe for disaster.”

Some also note that for all its expense, the newest Lifeline plan is only part of the solution. “A really comprehensive plan would try to close all the gaps,” says Lyons. What use is expanded Internet access to consumers who cannot afford computers?

Although the program is still much debated, the FCC’s plan to expand Lifeline services to provide under-served individuals with Internet access is itself a recognition that Internet access facilitates full participation in society.

“I think it was inevitable that the FCC would do what it is doing,” says Lyons.

As the Internet becomes ever more essential, the world could see such programs expand even further.

The FCC will vote on the expanded Lifeline plan on March 31.

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