Is Internet Access a Right?

I just saw the results of an interesting survey conducted by AnchorFree, a digital privacy company. They asked 2,000 people a number of questions about Internet privacy and related issues.

The most interesting finding to me was that 32% of Americans now believe that access to broadband is a fundamental right. I’m sure you wouldn’t have to go back as recently as five years ago to find a time when nobody held that belief. I think this speaks loudly to the importance of broadband in people’s lives.

I also know a lot of people at the other end of the spectrum for that belief. Many people think that the primary purpose of the Internet is now to watch video. It’s not hard to understand this viewpoint since video traffic, due to the size of video files, dwarfs other internet traffic. But the Internet has continued to increase in importance in the average person’s life in ways that might not be catching the big headlines. One example is the way that the Internet has changed how many of us work. Just in my family of siblings I and a sister along now work at home. On the block where I live there are half a dozen people that work from home. While that phenomenon has been around for a while, the number of people working at home some or all of the time continues to climb rapidly- something that would not be possible without reliable broadband.

The Internet also has changed our lives in smaller, but important ways. I recently moved to Asheville, NC and live close to downtown. It turns out here that most of the households in my new neighborhood subscribe to a platform called Nextdoor. This delivers hyper-local news, something that was talked about a lot in the early days of the Internet, but which never quite materialized. This is a platform where you report a lost cat, warn about a tree branch that has fallen in the road or look for somebody local to mow your lawn. The platform can be set to just cover your immediate neighbors or for a wider area. At least in my new neighborhood this Internet platform has created a sense of connectivity and community, something that has disappeared in a lot of the country.

Most of us also use the cloud today, and I think many people don’t even realize the extent of the cloud in their lives. I use a back-up service to automatically store copies of every file on my computer. We use several software packages such as Microsoft Office365, Adobe PDF services and QuickBooks that are in the cloud. And like almost everybody our email is all done in the cloud. It seems like my broadband connection is always updating some app on my cellphone or computer.

The Internet has also become the tool for training and education. This school year my daughter was unable to take the math class she wanted due to a scheduling conflict but was able to take it instead online – something that benefited her, but which I also suspect saved money for the school system since one online teacher could handle more students than in a classroom. I know a lot of people who have completed online masters degrees that have led to better-paying jobs. What is probably most extraordinary about this is how ordinary online training has become compared to just a few years ago. It’s hard to pictures students without Internet access, which is one of the biggest sore spots in rural America that doesn’t have good broadband.

But back to the rest of the survey. Not surprisingly, 80% of respondents said that they are more concerned today about online privacy and security than they were a year ago. This high percentage is probably due to a few factors such as the recent news that the FCC ended privacy regulations for the big ISPs. There has also been a lot of headlines in the last year about security problems and I rarely go a day any more without hearing about some new virus, some new weakness in a software platform, or some new major hacking.

Just over 70% of respondents said that they are doing more today to protect themselves online. For most this meant changing their passwords more often and being more careful about opening emails. But there has also been an explosion in new subscribers to VPN services since the FCC ended ISP privacy protections. I also anecdotally have talked to quite a few people who have either pared back or stepped away from social media like Facebook.

Interestingly, 42% of all respondents thought that it is the responsibility of their ISP or somebody other than the government to make the web as safe as possible. That has me scratching my head, but that’s probably because I know a lot more about the big ISPs than most people. The good news is that subscribers to smaller ISPs operated by telcos, cooperatives and municipalities have an ISP who is looking out for them. But anybody trusting the big ISPs might be putting their faith in the very company that is the primary culprit in violating their privacy.