Who Deserves Free Internet?

Humanity needs a broadband baseline.

The majority of humans don’t have internet access. You pay for internet access. Who deserves to get internet for free?

Though the number of web users is increasing, only one in three adults has internet access worldwide, according to a 2011 Gallup poll. That figure is front and center at, the Facebook-backed organization that wants to plug in the globe. Since Mark Zuckerberg announced that he’d bring free internet data to Zambia in 2014, Facebook has set its sub-Saharan goals even higher, turning to orbital distribution methods to zap internet down to smartphones across the continent.

The ethical answer to who gets internet for free, frankly, is anyone who can’t afford the internet. Sure the web can be insane and filthy and is where Twitter lives, but it is also a democratizing force. As Harvard University’s Internet and Democracy Project notes, access to the web does not necessarily precipitate institutional change but it unequivocally increases the political power of the average citizen. Widespread communications become easier, there are fewer barriers to the flow of ideas and information, and groups are able to coalesce and deploy themselves in ways that would be prohibitively difficult without the internet.

That said, not everyone can jump to the front of the line. That would just be a crowd. Triage is a disconcerting but humane process. And it’s all about need.

The need, in this particular case, is information. If the internet empowers people it’s not just because it’s a great loudspeaker. It can be turned around and used as an old-fashioned earhorn. Given that, the internet is for those who need information and who need to leverage it. There are about 60 million refugees on the move. It’s not serendipity by any means, but it’s something.

In a sense, we’ve beta tested this already with the Arab Spring. Depending on who you ask, the internet’s role in Tunisia and Egypt circa ‘11 may or may not have been a lead one. But it is undeniable, George Washington University political scientist Henry Farrell points out, “access to Internet-based tools substantially lowered the costs of collective action for protestors in both Tunisia and Egypt.” Humans, as the U.N. also noted in 2011, have a right to expression and information through the internet.

The most obvious parallel is to electricity, which is considered a public utility. If you cannot afford to pay your public utility bill, there are laws in place to help you, because utilities by definition are essential to modern society. It is how people work and where people work. Humanity’s broadband baseline doesn’t need to let you stream Netflix original series in HD, but just because you don’t have a right to Vitamin Water doesn’t mean you should die of thirst.

Today, for those of us who use the internet, the distinction between IRL and the internet is a punchline at best. Tomorrow, it will be meaningless — except to those who don’t have access.

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