March 18, 2017

Some governments give away free cable television, others give away free internet connections.

This is an archived blog post from The Acorn on Medium.

In the early 2000s, two big fads came together and it became fashionable to talk about the right to broadband” or right to internet”. By 2010, Finland declared it a legal right and promised a 100 Mbps access to every home by 2015. Some other countries have gone this way. It is unclear if this right” involves having a connection available, or providing the service without charging the user.

Meanwhile breathless media reports have (mis)reported that the UN has declared internet access a human right, when all that the UN had resolved, non-bindingly, was that governments must not disrupt internet access and violate online freedom.

In this year’s budget, the Kerala state government has declared that internet will now become a right of the people” and that the government will spend Rs 1000 crore to set up a fibre-optic network (alongside electricity lines) and provide free Wi Fi access at government service centres, libraries and public spaces. It will also free internet access to 2 million poor households. Welcoming the announcement, one Keralite suggested the government should ensure that the families has access to devices as well.”

So what’s wrong?

As good and as necessary as internet access is, it is not a right. Neither are food, electricity, education and healthcare. Yes, food, electricity, education, healthcare and internet access are not human rights. Not even if you live in Kerala. That’s because it incurs costs to provide them, and those costs have to be paid for by somebody else. This is quite unlike the right to free speech and property which do not cost anyone else. See this post on why the rights-based approach is immoral and illiberal: robbery is not a right.

Let’s assume the right to internet” declaration is merely political rhetoric and set it aside for a moment. It remains unclear why the Kerala government deemed it necessary to invest money in a new telecommunications infrastructure business. It is not as if BSNL, the state-owned telecom operator and other private players do not cover the state. It is unclear if Kerala wants to lease dark fibre to telecom operators and ISPs or wants to set up its own service provider. The former might still have some redeeming features. If it is the latter though, all that is happening is a new public-sector unit entering a competitive market and using taxpayer funds to undercut private players.

There are much simpler ways for the government to provide internet access to those who need it. Libraries and community centres can provide free Wi Fi without the need for a new Rs 1000 crore fibre network. Existing telecom operators can provide the connections. If the Kerala government wants to provide connectivity to households that can’t afford them, vouchers and coupons will perform the task more efficiently than having to set up a new PSU.

Of course, if what you want to do is spend Rs 1000 crores on an infrastructure project, set up a PSU and so on, then you’ll ignore simpler, more efficient ways to provide internet access to those who need it, but can’t afford it.

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