Is Internet access essential?

To keep connected to my Canadian-ness (or is it Canadian-inity?), I try to follow the hot topics in Canadian news. One issue that has received a lot of attention is the CRTC’s decision to approve usage based billing by Canadian ISPs. I won’t get into the details here, but if you’re curious, Michael Geist has a great discussion on what UBB is and why it matters.

Geist runs an excellent blog discussing the technology law issues of the day. Geist’s posts on usage based billing caught my eye because of his recommended next-steps for Parliament. Among other things, Geist suggests the Canadian government should mandate open-network policies, monitor ISPs to detect anti-competitive throttling and open spectrum auctions to international buyers.

Geist’s recommendations seem reasonable. Who wouldn’t benefit from more competition among the ISPs? But maybe that’s because he has already accepted two points: One, that Internet access is essential; and two, that government intervention is the best way to promote Internet access.

I’m more interested in the first assumption: Is Internet access essential?

On the one hand, Internet access seems like a First-World Problem. Even if we shut the Internet off, what’s the big deal? No Internet means little more than no Facebook newsfeeds, no Netflix movies or no celebrity Twitter updates. Internet access isn’t indispensible – it’s just a convenience. If email and Skype are down, we still have communication via cell phones and coffee dates; and if Google and Wikipedia are down, we can still access information through libraries and encyclopedias.

On the other hand, Internet access is about much more than Facebook stalking or lunch-hour Tweets. At the core of it, the Internet makes communication and easy access to information so much easier that it revolutionizes modern life. It's difficult to get by without instant communication and access to information. As local newspapers shut down, we depend on Internet news media to keep informed. As snail mail becomes unacceptably slow, we need email to communicate. Modern life depends on Internet access, and there’s no going back.

So is Internet access essential? I guess I’ve come to the law student’s response: It depends. That could be a perfectly acceptable answer if relying on rhetoric was sufficient. But I've been pretty sloppy in my reasoning because I haven't broken down the question sufficiently.

Before jumping into answering Is Internet access essential, two terms need to be clarified: First, what does "Internet access" mean? Second, what does "essential" mean? Because these terms aren't very scientific, the definitions require value judgments.

Defining Internet access can be tricky. What sorts of speeds matter - 56k dial-up modem or high-speed DSL? What level of reliability are we talking about - how much downtime a day, a week or month is acceptable? What type of access is acceptable - is any censorship of Internet content appropriate?

Defining essential is also challenging. Essential for whom - large corporations or Joe Average? And essential for what - a decent quality of life for citizens (and if so, how do we measure quality of life) or nationwide economic growth (measured using GDP or some other way)?

It may seem overly nit-picky to make the definitions so precise. I mean, isn't it obvious Internet access is essential for everyone (what would we do without lolcats?) But pinning these terms down is important because we can't give a clear answer to a sloppy question. If we want informed public debate on the issue, we need to know what the issue is before we start arguing, especially when billions of tax dollars are at stake.

In addition, being precise with definitions is important because it makes explicit who we're trying to protect. If the government shouldn't intervene unless Internet access is essential, defining the terms decides who is worthy of public attention. If we define Internet access narrowly as the ability for large corporations to use hi-speed DSL lines, then the beneficiaries will be corporations. If we define Internet access broadly as access to at least 56k speeds for the majority of the population, then the beneficiary is the general public.

Bringing this back to Michael Geist's blog: The problem with his recommendations isn't that they don't make sense. The problem is that it's unclear who his recommendations are supposed to help. We should decide who we're trying to help achieve what before deciding how to help. Maybe it's nit-picky, or maybe it's just good practice.