Is Broadband a Civil Right?

Sometimes you have to wonder if people appreciate the significance of what they’re saying. On Huffington Post this morning, I found an account of a panel at the Personal Democracy Forum gathering on the question of who controls the Internet’s optical core. The writer, Steve Rosenbaum, declares that Broadband is a Civil Right:

If the internet is the backbone of free speech and participation, how can it be owned by corporate interests whose primary concern isn’t freedom or self expression or political dissent? Doesn’t it have to be free?

OK, that’s a reasonable point to discuss. Unfortunately, the example that’s supposed to back up this argument is the role that broadband networks have played in the Iranian protests. Does anyone see the problem here? Narrow-band SMS on private networks was a big problem for the government of Iran in the recent protests, but broadband not so much because they could control it easily through a small number of filters.

If broadband infrastructure isn’t owned by private companies, it’s owned by governments; the networks are too big to be owned any other way. So in the overall scheme of things, if I have to choose who’s more likely to let me protest the government from among: A) The Government; or B) Anybody Else, my choice is pretty obviously not the government.

Isn’t this obvious?


12 thoughts on “Is Broadband a Civil Right?”

  1. Actually, no, it’s very simplistic.

    Imagine –

    How can we have a system of PUBLIC ROADS?! All roads must be private. Otherwise, THE GOVERNMENT COULD CONTROL THE ROADS!!! Do you want that, huh?

    How can we have a system of PUBLIC MAIL?! All mail delivery must be private. Otherwise, THE GOVERNMENT COULD CONTROL THE MAIL!!! Do you want that, huh?

    Many other examples could be given.

    Liberbabble is just silly.

  2. We don’t have much experience with private roads, but our experience with private mail doesn’t support your point, Seth. Overnight delivery via private mail services certainly did prove useful for actual political activists in the era of paper documents. Telephone systems also support the notion that privately-owned systems outperform public ones, this is the reason that more global telephone users now have wireless phones than wireline.

    But my point was actually that narrow-band SMS on private networks was more difficult for the government of IRAN (put it in all caps to help your reading comprehension) than broadband Internet that the government DID control.

    That’s a simple historical fact, do with it what you will, Mr. Free Speech Guy.

  3. To be clearer, the argument that broadband infrastructure should be treated as a public resource is not refuted by knee-jerk bogymen. I’d say that what mattered in Iran was that the relevant network hardware was outside that country, not private vs. public. Businesses are often quite eager to censor and appease an authoritarian government (e.g. see Google and China), even to the extent of going far beyond what the government might directly order.

  4. …isn’t’ broadband access what is making the Iran Protests happen?”

    In a word, no. A questionable election is the cause of the protest. The protesters are using Internet access as one of many possible tools to organize their protests. Telephone chains and other methods would likely be just as effective.

    Given a choice between government or corporate control of the Internet and broadband networks in general, it’s certainly not obvious to me that governments are more likely to protect free speech rights than corporations; who’s more sensitive to criticism of the government?

    Absent a fascist regime (in which corporations and government ally against the people), the answer is, obviously, the government. Which is why the recently released requirements for NTIA and RUS stimulus funding are so disappointing; they explicitly regulate the funded networks in ways that could harm free speech. And by prohibiting content providers from being able to pay for “express delivery” or other special quality of service provisions, it may preclude innovations that need such service.

    Another related disappointment is that the rules for the NTIA and RUS funding explicitly prohibit any private entity that isn’t a corporation from participating. This, obviously, IS a pro-corporate measure that discriminates against sole proprietorships (which constitute the overwhelming majority of American small businesses).

  5. “Absent a fascist regime (in which corporations and government ally against the people), …”

    One doesn’t need a fascist regime for this to happen – it can occur in every sort of political system. It’s entirely possible to have privat-IZED censorship.

  6. Anything’s possible, but the big difference is decentralization. We only have one national government, but we have several national carriers, each with different interests.

  7. Richard:

    Possibly, but it is also possible for those national carriers to establish a comfortable oligarchy. This seems to be what is happening in the wholesale “middle mile” business (including “special access” lines and also long haul fiber). The ILECs are gouging non-ILECs. And the long haul fiber owners are refusing to deal with the entities that would need them to bypass the ILECs, because the ILECs are good customers of theirs. Oversight is still needed to prevent anticompetitive practices. But if this is done, no other government intervention is needed.

  8. Richard, that’s again too far simplistic. Governments aren’t monolithic, there are always factions (cryptography was a great example, the financial factions were deadset against the law-enforcement factions). Inversely, the interests of corporations can put in place an infrastructure for MASSIVE spying, as e.g. Google does with Gmail, far beyond what would be ordinarily acceptable in a publicly owned system.

    Trying to find some way to just consult net.libertarian ideology for the answer is nonsense.

  9. “Law actually is monolithic”??? For heaven’s sake, obscenity is a geographic variable, arguably with additional time-dependency on top of that! In the US, law varies from state to state, and on the Federal level, it can vary sometimes in area too (“Circuit Courts”). It’s actually a mess from the standpoint of the geek mindset.

  10. Richard: The relevant point is that the government should keep its hands off the Internet unless it’s necessary to step in to prevent anticompetitive conduct.

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