Thursday, October 09, 2014

Free Wi-Fi isn't a "right"; It is, however, a really good idea

Maryland governor and future not-President Martin O'Malley caused a bit of a stir when he described Wi-Fi as a "human right." The right-wing internet press has, of course, been attacking him like crazy. ANYTHING described as a right is worthy of scorn to those folks, except of course your Constitutional Right to a Bushmaster .446 Remington SuperLight Carbine Semiautomatic. While I have little patience for the argument of the crazies, the underlying problem here is that the conversation we are having about infrastructure an its relation to government is broken. The government doesn't exists just to guarantee rights. It exists to enhance the public good.

Is a government that doesn't provide wi-fi committing a human rights violation? That seems a little bit ludicrous on its face, but let's twist this discussion around. A government that suppresses internet usage is authoritarian, right? Protests need a space to begin, and the nebulous internet provided the perfect public space for what became the Arab Spring, as well as the recent protests in Hong Kong. Attempts by the Chinese government to suppress internet access have been rightly condemned.

Access to a job is not a human right. Access to a road to get to your job is not a human right. Access to a port to bring your wares to market is not a human right. They are, however, all things that enhance society. A connected, employed, productive society isn't just a positive development, it is necessary to the existence of democracy. They are public goods. They increase the general welfare. They don't make America a more righteous place, but they obviously make it a better one.

And so it is with wi-fi availability. Arguing that something which didn't even really exist 10 years ago is a human right is a hard sell. The case that needs to be made is that we are all better off with consistent, reliable internet access. This was the case that was made with the establishment of a Postal Service - that being able to connect everyone, everywhere, at a reasonable price benefitted not only those in remote outposts and those who couldn't afford private parcel delivery, but strengthened as as a whole.

Let's get out of the business of trying to describe everything that helps us as a right, and back into explaining how public goods work and why they should be implemented.

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