Equal access to information and public debate is essential to democracy. Such a perspective may not seem obvious in these days when conglomerates such as Time Warner and Disney control our news organizations, but it is one our Founding Fathers clearly understood.
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t this country’s Postmaster General because he was good at delivering mail. It was because he believed that the widespread circulation of information and opinion was a bedrock of self-governance. George Washington wanted newspapers and periodicals delivered for free not because he was outlandishly charitable, but because he believed that the postal service was “the circulatory system of democracy,” as The Nation noted recently.
Technology has changed drastically from the days when Paul Revere’s horse rode the information highway. But the basic principles of democracy have not. If all citizens are to be equal players in our democratic political structure, even in theory, they must be allowed full access to information and policy debates.
It is in this context that we believe that educators must fight for universal access to the 21st century equivalent of the postal service: the Internet.
The computer-based telecommunications industry is still in its infancy, and policies established in the next few years will set precedents for generations to come. Already, debates are raging among corporate interests about how to best make money off the Internet. Their concern has little to do with democracy and everything to do with profits. Some 50 years ago, the public airwaves were turned over to private interests for the profit-driven development of the emerging broadcast media. That decision had fateful, and largely negative, consequences in terms of corporate control of information and public debate. Similar decisions are about to be made about the development of on-line media.
All citizens should have a fundamental right to Internet access — just as they have a right to a mail service, to electricity, to phones, to highways, and to decent sanitation and drinking water.
Educators, librarians, and all those who believe knowledge is more than a mere commodity, have important allies among technology buffs. As William Gibson, who coined the word “cyberspace,” argued at a recent technology convention, providing free access for public schools to the Internet “may well represent nothing less than this nation’s last and best hope of providing something like a level socio-economic playing field for a true majority of its citizens.”
It is time to develop demands for universal and equal access to the Internet. Some possibilities:
- Telephone companies, as a condition of their licensing, should be required to provide all schools and all public libraries with unlimited free access to the Internet.
- Computer companies should be required to provide free Internet software, on demand, to all schools and all public libraries.
- Telecommunications companies and information service providers should pay a special tax that will provide the tens of billions of dollars it will take to buy computers for our schools and libraries, train staff in their use, and rewire schools and libraries so that they are linked to the Internet.
- All citizens should have access to the Internet. Those who cannot afford personal computers should have access to terminals in public places such as libraries, restaurants, churches, shopping malls, and schools. Services at libraries and schools should be free, and at minimal cost in other locations.
- The cost of on-line services should be regulated, with online access available as an automatic part of basic phone service.
No one knows where the cyberspace revolution will lead. But everyone knows it is here to stay. Just as students have a right to books and libraries, they have a right to free Internet access. As we prepare to enter the 21st Century, let’s not leave our democratic ideals behind.