The internet as a right

I need to write an essay on a bold goal for the internet for a World Economic Forum (aka Davos) Global Agenda Council on the future of the internet. My thoughts:

The internet is a right.

I can’t imagine a bolder notion than that. Or maybe it’s not so bold. In a civilized society, education is a right. Some services we may pay for but society still treats them as rights: In any developed society, we expect to have water, electricity, even phone service (in the U.S., we all pay fees to assure that everyone can get a line). In the U.K., television is a right such as funding it is a responsibility. These rights can be met publicly or privately.

Why not the internet? I say that access to an unfettered internet – an open internet that is not censored or filtered by government or business – should be expected as a new pillar of civilized society. Just as we judge societies by their literacy, we should now judge them by their connectedness.

It’s in their enlightened self-interest. And I will suggest that the WEF Global Agenda Council should catalogue, quantify, and demonstrate that self-interest in terms of the benefit the internet brings a nation in:
* business – jobs created, efficiencies found, innovation sparked, entrepreneurism supported;
* education – every human able to search all our digital knowledge, distributed university curricula, the growth of the aggregated education, the pull toward literacy;
* politics – the ability of citizens to coalesce and act, the increase in involvement in politics, the greater transparency enabled (which some politicians will not think is in their self-interest – but that is precisely why we will want this creed to separate democrats from dictators and the corrupt);
* government – we have only begun to use connectivity to improve governance in its relationships with constituents and in efficiencies;
* society – I argue in my book that staying connected may change the nature of relationships for the good – one-to-one and nation-to-nation.

Now I ask you to add to that list: What are the benefits that will accrue if and when every citizen has a right to an open internet?

And how do you define openness? I’ve argued that the internet itself is the substantiation of the First Amendment; by its openness, we can judge a society’s freedom of speech. Gating against speech, content, applications, and uses must be discouraged. At the same time, there needs to be an acknowledgment of the economics of this: If you use more water, even if having it is a right, you pay for it. In some nations, if you use more education, you don’t pay for it. What should the economics of a universal internet be? And there needs to be an acknowledgment of security both for users and for the internet itself.

In the end, this is not legislation – even as power as the WEF may be, it’s not in a position to pass laws. Rather, it is an expectation, a definition of progressive civilization in our era.

What do you think?