Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Is internet access a right?

Eric Pfanner at the New York Times asks, "Should Online Scofflaws Be Denied Web Access?" You see, some folks* believe that people who pirate copyrighted media should be denied their own internet connections.** A bill to do just that was defeated in France last week and European consumers are reported as being strongly against any such thing. In fact, according to Pfanner,

Last month, in a pre-emptive strike, the European Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution calling Internet access a fundamental freedom that could not be restricted except by a court of law.

At first blush, that sounds a little far-fetched, calling internet access a fundamental freedom. What's next, a fundamental right to quarter-pound hamburgers? Plus a constitutional right to fries?

At second blush, though, maybe not entirely far-fetched. The internet has now become the most basic informational, organizational, and administrative infrastructure we have. It's how I get the news, it's how I write to people, it's how I access my bank account and pay many of my bills, it's how I do much of my work at home, and it's almost the only way to hunt for a job nowadays (and often the only way they want you to apply for one). Would losing all that be proportional to the crime of sharing music files?

How often do we punish a person by depriving them of access to fundamental infrastucture? I mean, aside from actually tossing them into the pokey? The nearest equivalent I can think of is taking away their driver's license. But here's an illustrative point about traffic laws: we make this big distinction between moving and non-moving violations. You can have your car impounded for not paying parking tickets, but they don't permanently confiscate the car or prevent you from driving someone else's because of it.

You're still allowed to drive after offenses like that. We only take away your license when you're just too damned dangerous to be allowed on the road.*** It's the crimes that are likely to lead to mayhem and death that justify barring a person from the road. Not property crimes; just threats to life and limb. And internet piracy doesn't offer any equivalent to drunk drivers or street racers. Property crimes don't justify cutting someone off from the virtual world, because that's where everyone is doing real business nowadays.

* Often spelled R-I-A-A.

** Presumably, they could still go online at a library or coffee shop, but not have their own ISP. This gets trickey, because many household connections are shared by several family members and some wireless connections are shared by multiple households. Then there's the possiblity of someone hacking into your wireless account, and ... it's just not as easy as saying "Here's the ISP, so we have the guilty party."

*** And often not even then. It's so crippling to be barred from the road in our culture that we're reluctant to impose that penalty even on maniacs.


pfanderson said...

I'm not even sure where to start. Personally, I must confess to being fan of:

"Information wants to be free
Access to computers and anything else which may teach you something about how the world works should be unlimited and total.
Always yield to the hands-on imperative.
Mistrust Authority.
Do It Yourself.
Fight the Power.
Feed the noise back into the system.
Surf the edge."
Branwyn, Gareth. "Cyberpunk Cut and Paste Manifesto: A 'C' Word Sampler." http://www.streettech.com/bcp/BCPgraf/Manifestos/Cut&Paste.html

That is an old piece that supports the idea of the Net as a fundamental freedom. I believe that Tim Berners-Lee has also stated something to the effect that his original vision of the Web was basically open and free. I'll try to find a source.

But the idea of driving as a fundamental freedom twists my brain into an odd pretzel, since I am a person who does not drive and who has many friends with disabilities who also cannot drive. The idea of not driving being an extreme punishment ... well, hmmmm. I know intimately just how challenging it is to get by without driving, and how not driving has shaped a lot of my lifestyle choices.

I guess I'm saying that the analogy is provocative, but I am trying to think of whether another analogy might be more appropriate. Perhaps library access? The right to an education?

Scott Hanley said...

It's true that not everyone drives, but being able to get from place to place is still an essential part of life in this country. If you don't drive, you need public transportation or remarkably patient and helpful friends. It's so necessary that we spend umpteens of billions on streets and highways and you'll find departments of transportation at most levels of government.

While driving isn't enshrined in the Constitution as a fundamental freedom, the law is still reluctant to use a driving ban as a punishment for many forms of misbehavior. It's a recognition that being able to travel farther than your legs can carry you is absolutely essential to participating in our world. We put up with an astonishing amount of mayhem from impaired, irresponsible, or simply inexperienced drivers. The barriers to getting a driver's license are relatively low and you have to do a lot to have it taken away from you. It would be otherwise if we viewed driving on public roads as simply a privilege and convenience.

Similarly, it's difficult to be a full participant in society without receiving and sending information and the internet is now the primary means for doing so. Yes, you can choose to do without it and get your news from tv and radio; you can deal with your bank only on the telephone or in person; you can refuse to use email. But it's getting harder to stick with that choice and the person who makes such a choice is likely to feel more and more keenly a certain amount of isolation. So taking internet access away from someone is not as straightforward as taking away a miscreant's slingshot. It's an enormous penalty which cuts him off from a big slice of life as it's being lived today.

pfanderson said...

Thanks, Scott. The clarification of the legal context does help my brain make more sense of this. Or maybe it is just that it is morning instead of late at night (when I should know to keep my mouth shut).

I can see the parallel between the legal context of preserving access, and that this is *very* different and much more applicable than the examples I tossed out. I think I was framing the discussion rather differently, reading it from a different POV.

Now I am pondering the rights of prisoners, where the right to mobility is restricted pretty much totally, but the right to access to the Internet and information are restricted only in part. I think that substantiates your thought process.

Scott Hanley said...

I believe some people have questioned whether imprisonment is an appropriate punishment for nonviolent crimes. I don't think I'll venture into that topic here, but it's a legitimate question.

pfanderson said...

Yep, that could diverge into a whole messy and unending dialog. Worthy, but off topic. :)