My US-based colleague Sascha Meinrath recently published an editorial in the Guardian arguing that universal internet connectivity should become part of a new social contract for the United States. He argues that connectivity, like public safety and public space, should be available to all. After all, parks and other public services are freely available to US citizens, and internet infrastructure is equally important.
The comments on the story by British readers were very revealing about the way people think about public services. One commenter noted that parks were not freely accessible, as due to fears of pedophilia single childless adults were interrogated by park staff. Another compared the internet to a shopping mall – since it is primarily commercial, why provide public support?
These comments helped me to situate the UK’s seeming shortage of community broadband projects (I’m still looking for more of them!). I am still surprised to see how many “public” spaces are privatized (including parks that belong to the Royals). Meanwhile, the perceived erosion of basic public services in the UK seems to be making citizens wary of arguing for connectivity as public service, or – by extension – communication as a right.
The right to speak and to express opinions is the foundation of democracy. In an age when network infrastructure supports many of the ways we express these opinions publicly, equal access must be provided to everyone. This does not supercede the importance of clean water, shelter, and health care. It does ensure that we are free to speak, listen, and dissent – publicly.