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Friday, September 03, 2004

The internet as a public good?

This story indicates that Philadelphia's city government is considering a $10m investment (at the minimum) to make the entire city a wireless internet hotspot. On the surface, this sounds like a great idea. Internet access over a wireless network becomes essentially a public good.

I have misgivings about this development because I fear censorship will eventually become an issue. Johnny will be busy downloading smut in the alleyway and, while we can all suggest internet filtering software, the reality is that people are lazy, stupid and cheap and won't want to put filtering software on their own computers. Rather, there will be some who will insist that the city needs to filter objectionable material at the wireless-transmitter level.

Colleague Mike Ward is skeptical about successful censorship movements of a publicly provided wireless internet - pointing to relaxed standards in film, television, and radio. Perhaps he is right.

On the other hand, relying upon the courts to continue to uphold freedom of speech on the internet is not guaranteed to hold in the long run. While some will point to Dredd Scott and other court precedent that deservedly went the way of the dinosaur, there are plenty of other instances in which fundamental rights have either been severely curtailed or outright done away with - rights which are not necessarily morally reprehensible, such as freedom of speech in political campaigns (substantially restricted by McCain-Feingold and upheld by the Court).

At the moment, Sprint, AT&T, T-Mobile, and other wireless providers have a pecuniary interest in keeping internet subscribers happy with access to all the porn, hate speech, and other objectionable behavior they can get their hands on. Right now you can pay AOL to filter your internet information, or choose not to use AOL if you want unfettered access. When the city government takes over, the limits placed on the internet will be determined by majority rule and/or the courts, there is no more voting with your feet by moving to another internet service provider there will only be voting with your feet by moving to another city.

Some might suggest that private internet access will always be available, that if the city of Philadelphia limits what can be seen in Philadelphia it will not limit what is posted and seen in Arlington, TX. Private internet service providers will be available for those who are willing to pay for the "good" of having uncensored internet access. This is similar to paying for access to pornography on your television - you have to go pay extra for that "good," the government will not provide it for free over the airwaves.

Perhaps this will be the case. However, I am less concerned about limits on what can be posted on the internet that I am about limits placed on what can be seen on the internet. If we are eventually going to have a nationwide, or worldwide, wireless internet provided by local, state, and federal governments, it stands to reason that some if not most private internet service providers will be crowded out of the market. If all of my local ISPs are driven out of business, or perhaps made "illegal" within a given area (much like it is "illegal" to have private fire stations and police), then the government will effectively have control over the internet, or at least what we see on the internet.

If the local, state, and federal governments can more effectively monitor what we are seeing and doing on the internet, which you would think would be the case - you have to log into the network after all and the city maintains the wireless transmitters (but I don't really know much about this technology) - it becomes much easier to tax targeted behaviors such as email, commerce, etc.

Conspiracy theories abound and worries about the PATRIOT ACT keep some people up all night, but the government might just get its hands on the internet the easy way, by giving it to us for "free" just like we can get prescription drugs for "free" and health care for "free" and job security for "free" and so on and so on.

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