Internet Access as a Right: the FCC’s National Broadband Plan

March 21, 2010 / Business, Culture, Life, Media, Tech / 10 Comments /
Once most known for its censorship of lurid content in media, the FCC is expanding its scope to making ubiquitous internet access a national priority.

Should internet access be a right? The Federal Communications Commission thinks it should be.

Unveiled on March 16, 2010, the FCC’s National Broadband Plan outlines an ambitious vision to make broadband internet speed ubiquitous and affordable in the United States. As reported in the New York Times:

“Fewer than 27 out of every 100 Americans have broadband service, compared with 33 in South Korea and 38 in the Netherlands. The average advertised download speed is 8 megabits per second; in France, it is 51. And according to a study by the F.C.C., the average download in the United States occurs at about half the advertised speed. Meanwhile, the poor, the elderly and other vulnerable groups remain cut off from broadband technology, and therefore from such things as online government services, medical advice and jobs.”

The plan’s aims, far-reaching in scope, are as follows:

Once most known for its censorship of lurid content in media, the FCC is expanding its scope to making ubiquitous internet access a national priority.

  • Goal 1: At least 100 million U.S. homes should have affordable access to actual download speeds of at least 100 megabits per second and actual upload speeds of at least 50 megabits per second.
  • Goal 2: The United States should lead the world in mobile innovation, with the fastest and most extensive wireless networks of any nation.
  • Goal 3: Every American should have affordable access to robust broadband service, and the means and skills to subscribe if they so choose.
  • Goal 4: Every community should have affordable access to at least 1 Gbps broadband service to anchor institutions such as schools, hospitals and government buildings.
  • Goal 5: To ensure the safety of Americans, every first responder should have access to a nationwide public safety wireless network.
  • Goal 6: To ensure that America leads in the clean energy economy, every American should be able to use broadband to track and manage their real-time energy consumption.

At roughly 7 times the speed of the internet connection I’m using to write this post (provided by my Comcast cable connection), I’m all for universal broadband. But why should it be a right, if it should be?

The Notion of Rights & The Hohfeldian Analytical System

Talk of ‘rights’ is often muddled, given the varied nature of moral history across cultures. Many, including famed philosopher Jeremy Bentham, think the notion of natural rights are nothing more than “rhetorical nonsense — nonsense upon stilts.” The good news for us plebes is that most modern thinkers — and, more practically, legislators — tend to think otherwise.

In considering whether internet access ought to be a right, it’s helpful, I think, to understand the form of rights, which will provide a framework for looking at the issues at stake. Legal theorist Wesley Hohfeld (1879-1918) articulates four elements of rights (which are known as “The Hohfeldian incidents”) that are particularly useful for this exercise: the privilege, the claim, the power, and the immunity.

For a more technical description of these elements, check out the Stanford Enyclopedia of Philosophy, but I’ll attempt to give a quick and dirty explanation of what these terms mean for those who aren’t as familiar with the ‘φ‘ symbol. For those less theoretically-inclined, feel free to skip to the next section.

  • The privilege (liberties): You have the right to do something because you have no duty not to do that thing. For example, you have the right to pick up a coin that you find on the ground because you have no duty not to pick it up.
  • The claim: You have the right to claim a certain action from someone because s/he has the duty to do that action for you. An employee, for instance, has the right to be paid for her work, because of the duty the employer acknowledged in their contract.
  • The power: You have the right to alter your own or another’s Hohfeldian incidents, if an agreed upon set of rules allows it. A boss, for example, can create a new duty or for her employee or lessen her authority over others, because the rules of employer-employee relationships allow it.
  • The immunity: You have the right to not have your Hohfeldian incidents altered by another person, within a given set of rules. For example, US citizens have immunity from being forced to practice a religion that the government prescribes.

Broadly speaking, there are a lot of different types of rights, and it’s easier to see how rights can come into conflict when we take a look at their different characteristics.


Some Issues at Stake

Approximately 100 million Americans do not have broadband at home. The FCC aims to change that.


  • Education. Both scholars and common sense tell us that internet access is one of the biggest pedagogical boons since the invention of the printing press. Beyond being the vastest free repository of information in the history of humankind, interaction with its content provides users with the skill sets needed to survive and thrive in information-based economies. Parsing through large amounts of data and navigating various conceptual categories are among the many skills frequent internet users acquire. So, if education is a right, then it certainly seems to follow that internet access should also be right–especially given the importance of learning outside the classroom.
  • Public Safety & National Security. Since 9/11, the government has failed to create a functional interoperable communication network for first responders to both security threats and natural disasters. The results, as seen during 9/11, can be life-changing. PCMag’s Chloe Albinisius writes: “Police could not warn fire department officials about falling debris. Port Authority police could not tell state police to get out of a building, and so on.” Aside from interoperable communications, ubiquitous internet access would give citizens more immediate, multimedia information about important events from more sources in real-time than other communicative media —  e.g., cable TV, telephone networks.
  • Taxation: While most of the National Broadband Plan is supposed to be covered by television spectrum auctions and private investment, some initiatives, such as the aforementioned public safety interoperable network, will come at the cost of additional fees for broadband users. Though FCC spokesman Rob Kenny claims the fee would be less than a dollar, many uber-libertarian types are angered by yet another tax, clamoring for immunity from such a fee.

The issue is complex, to say the least. In my opinion, the educational and national security claims are large enough to warrant internet access as a right. But what do you think? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the comment board below.


  1. Steven Richard Duque

    March 21, 2010
    / Reply

    My newest blog post: "Internet Access as a Right: the FCC's National Broadband Plan" --

  2. merritt

    March 21, 2010
    / Reply

    I think the question of internet as a right may be separate from the issue of broadband as a public good. Arguably, the elderly and poor already have some access to Internet (just as they have some access to housing), because anyone can get a library card and can use the library computers for just about anything (they are however prevented from viewing child pornography, and must ask for privacy before accessing pornography, see CIPA-- public library may not receive federal assistance to provide Internet access unless it installs software to block images that constitute obscenity or child pornography, and to prevent minors from obtaining access to material that is harmful to them...this is a 1st amendment issue arguably separate from the Internet right). The legal argument (certainly the Constitutional argument) for housing as a 4th amendment right probably has more weight to it than a right (would it be a Constitutional right? a human right?) to broadband.

    It seems to me that the question of whether we need broadband for first responder or educational means is a question of public good-- like highways. One might see this as distinct from the right to Internet freedom (see Clinton's recent speech, and perhaps more aptly as a complement to the right to education, the right to emergency medical care, etc. While we're at it, there could be plenty of national security arguments in the other direction-- more Internet access for more people means more IP addresses, more botnets, more anonymity, therefore less attribution and more avenues and immunity for organized crime or terrorists...

    (And ultimately, even in its more harmless uses, not everyone is sure that the spliced-and-mashed world of online information is all that valuable-- at least, it comes with costs: Even setting aside costs of implementation-- which presumably have prevented us from actually giving everyone "rights" like housing which are incontestably good to provide-- making Internet ubiquitous seems perhaps not a simply positive prospective development.)

    • Steven

      March 26, 2010
      / Reply

      Merritt, thanks so much for the thoughtful commentary, and I apologize for not responding sooner.

      I think your distinction between something to which people have a right and a public good is a good one. I wonder, however, whether ought to have a right to certain public goods -- e.g., education, health care, clean air. Your point about the elderly and the poor having access to the internet is a good one, but even in libraries the internet access speeds are anemic compared to what the FCC is posing. As someone who pays for internet and still has speeds 7 times less than what is being proposed (which is good, for the US), I can see the benefit of making what may be a decent internet access foundation even better.

      I certainly think that housing/shelter is a more fundamental human need than broadband internet connection speeds, so I'm in agreement on that issue.

      Separately, I'm not certain how I feel about weighing 1st Amendment concerns against a 'right' to internet access. I do, however, still believe it's an important concern, given the effects that internet access can have on both a person's education and the government's desire to drive innovation and the commercial benefit that it would provide.

      In thinking about highways, I can see the that public goods aren't necessarily something to which citizens have a 'right' (it would be strange, I think, to say that a person has a right to a highway). But, with other public goods -- e.g., public schooling -- I think some might posit that education is a right. I can see the distinction, though, between a need and the solution to the need, which I think is what underlies the difference between a right and a public good. That is, rights can give rise to a public good, but a public good is not a right. If anything, I would say access to the internet is a public good that addresses the right to education. I apologize to you and all the readers for conflating the issue.

      I don't think that the security issue is enough to outweigh the benefits of the broadband plan. If I build more schools, for example, there could be more school shootings. I don't think it's a strong enough argument. The risk of potential harm of an otherwise useful instrument (if one can consider the internet an instrument), doesn't convince me that it shouldn't be done. This may be different, however, in the case of an object whose sole purpose or nature of existence is to cause harm -- e.g., nuclear weapons.

      Regarding costs, imagine the positive economic benefit of giving internet access to everyone. It will open doors and minds, providing fuel for innovation. I'd bet that the value it would ultimately add would outweigh its cost. But, there's probably no way to truly ever know.

      Thanks again, Meritt, and I hope to hear from you on the comment boards again soon!

  3. Freedom Thinker

    March 22, 2010
    / Reply

    While it may or may not be a worthwhile goal to provide broadband access to "everyone in the country", there is a question that should be asked anytime you want to proclaim something as a "right" and mandate it in law. Would you knowingly and willingly force another person (more generally, others) under penalty of law (and ultimately at gunpoint) to provide funding (i.e. pay additional taxes) to enable that "right"? The concept of rights comes into focus when you ask that question.

    Also, it most certainly does NOT follow that "if education is a right, then it certainly seems to follow that internet access should also be right". That is a logical fallacy if ever there was one.

    • Steven

      March 26, 2010
      / Reply

      Thanks for the comment, Freedom Thinker, and thanks for following the blog.

      I certainly agree that there's a definite risk in calling something a 'right' and mandating it by law. Please see the response I made to Merritt. She rightly pointed out that internet access is a 'public good' and, more fundamentally, that access to education is a 'right.' I wonder what your thoughts on whether there's a right to education.

      Regarding your question about funding -- simply put -- in some cases, yes. I do believe in mandating taxes to provide public goods like education, highways and bettering the environment. Certain issues -- e.g., aspects of health care -- are obviously trickier. Ultimately, I think, it depends on whether something truly is something that all human beings should -- by virtue of our being human -- have.

      To your point about my 'logical fallacy,' you're right that it's an oversimplification and misstatement. I do think, though, that if education is a right, access to the public good of internet access should be a top priority.

      Thanks again, Freedom Thinker, and I hope to hear back from you.

  4. Destitute

    March 24, 2010
    / Reply

    Try and think of an inmate or anyone for that matter, Deprived of "all" social contact including severely restricted communications. If you can approach any sort of empathy on any level here, you must agree that the question of rights is certainly worth debate.

    I see you do have a broadband connection so you may be somewhat disconnected.

    Come to my home, enjoy my dial up connection. If you would please, download my critical operating system updates to assure security. After that, If you wouldn't mind , could you update my antivirus but before you do hit a "Broadband for America site" to see if your note you scribbled and placed in that bottle has made it to a mainland somewhere. Now wait 30 or so minutes for the index page to complete loading and since it hasn't yet, go ahead and stop it and click the "Join the fight" link. Go get another sandwich. This page will definitely be up by the time you return.

    A right? Nah, but at this point I feel nothing less than slighted because something I know exists isn't available and as time goes on it's getting more and more prohibitive to do even the most mundane internet activities. I do smell a tort though and I abhor that odor.

    Knowledge is power....
    Education is a right...hmmmm
    Whining should be equal access for all and it takes me longer to get what's coming to me. Now I'm mad.

    • Steven

      March 26, 2010
      / Reply

      Destitute, thanks for the comment, and for following the blog.

      I'm not certain what you're getting at with your point about inmates. Like other citizens, I think that it's definitely worth considering whether they should have internet access, at least for educational purposes. But -- and I think many will agree -- prisoners forgo certain rights because of the status of their citizenship, which is lessened due to their harm against their respective society. It may be the case that you disagree with me.

      I also don't see how my having broadband access would negatively affect my judgment of whether internet access should be universalized, especially considering that I'm ultimately in support of the plan. I do, however, acknowledge a certain bias. I'm sorry to hear that you're still using dial-up, and perhaps -- with the implementation of the National Broadband Plan -- you will have access to broadband speeds some day in the not-so-distant future. I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to have that slow of an internet connection. It brings me back to the days of AOL Online, thinking about it.

      To your point about not being able to access certain sites, some bigger sites -- e.g., Facebook -- provide 'lite' versions of their sites for those with slower internet access speeds. I imagine this must be a headache for any developer who's aiming to create a content- and media-rich experience, while also attempting to ensure that people can access it with any internet speed.

      I definitely agree that knowledge is power, education is a right, and that freedom of speech (one form is whining) should also be a right.

      Here's hoping for the best!

  5. Steven

    March 26, 2010
    / Reply

    Networking the Green Economy: How Broadband & Related Technologies Can Build a Green Economic Future

    Thanks to Living in the Future reader Simon Owens for sending me this link!

  6. Kawi gurl

    July 2, 2010
    / Reply

    Some people see things that are and ask, Why? Some people dream of things that never were and ask, Why not? Some people have to go to work and don't have time for all that..

    Sent via Blackberry

  7. MikeThompson

    October 17, 2010
    / Reply

    great post as usual!

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