23 March 2010

The Civil Right to Broadband

Many Americans have a very limited view of human rights. At least a substantial minority not only doubt the right to health care (and thus life), but doubt all rights to privacy (see supporters of "The Patriot Act" and police search policies backed by "conservative" right-wing judges like Scalia, Roberts, Thomas), and surely a majority doubt the right to a home or a reasonably equal opportunity at education.

So I may not be on the main political pathway in the United States when I bring up the idea of a Finnish-style civil right to Broadband Access, but here I go, hoping that those in more socially advanced nations might hear the call.

Let's suppose I am in a hotel - imagine it is an Embassy Suites, a Hilton operation. I stay at Hilton properties from time to time. If you stay at a Hampton Inn you get great rooms, even a lapdesk for computing from bed, and free internet. But if you pay more, at an Embassy Suites or a top Hilton property, some of those perks disappear.

 Seaport Village, San Diego, California

So, let's say I'm staying at this hotel. It's very nice. I'm overlooking San Diego harbor. Last night there was a concert and fireworks off the fantail of the USS Midway, just across the street. The coffee sucks but the free breakfast is quite nice, as is the staff. A fresh copy of USA Today arrives at my door each morning...

But internet costs almost $13.00 (US) a day, and I don't read ink-on-paper newspapers. So, as someone with a "print disability," the Hilton chain is discriminating against me, violating my civil right to equal access to a routinely provided customer service, my civil right to equal access to information, and my civil right to access to the communication tools of citizenship.

And that is wrong.

Just as it is wrong to assign homework which requires (or may benefit from) information access if not all students have the same kind of information access. Student A's report on Zimbabwe comes from a home filled with books and with broadband computer access. Student B's report on Zimbabwe comes from a home with no books and no internet. What is the homework measuring? Student C can go online from home for help with math homework. Student D cannot. What is the homework measuring?

Student E, a first year university student, has access to the internet and the library's research tools from home, Student F, her classmate, does not. What will their respective grades likely show?

Job Applicant G can look up the employer on their phone on the way to the interview and remind himself of key points. Job Applicant H cannot. Who has the advantage?

Yes, there are ways around this. Student B can spend five hours after school at the public library, if it is open that late, if computer access can be continuous, if the walk home is safe, if he has no responsibilities at home. Student F can do the same with the college library, if she does not have to work, or care for her family. Job Applicant H can have a better memory, or be more organized. But, whatever you say, one group is at a decided disadvantage.

We shouldn't always have to be "better than"...

In the US, and in most nations, the last "civil right" might be the opportunity to be "equal." If, for example, a black man like Barack Obama had made the "mistakes" as a young man that George W. Bush made - drunk driving arrests, walking out on a National Guard commitment, drugs, etc - Obama could not possibly have become President. Obama had to be much "better than" an equivalent white candidate.

A black male, a "print disabled" person, a poor person, has to be much "better than" just to be close to equal, and nowhere is that more true than in the typical school.

There are many things we must do to break the persistent cycle of social reproduction which keeps people in poverty generation after generation, but one of those steps is universal access to information.

In other words, a civil right to broadband.

- Ira Socol

1 comment:

Jim Dornberg said...

A speaker in our county spoke about his "God given" right to bear arms. I wish those in power would speak just as passionately about the more important (and much more likely to be "God given") right that you've written about. Both are about empowerment, but one is much more scary than the other.