The Case for Universal Basic Internet

By: Amanda Silvana Hosek

Early supporters of the internet believed that it would be an equalizing global force. They believed that anyone, anywhere would have access to information at any time in order for ideas, knowledge, and human connection to flourish. However, without investment into open, uncensored, and cost-free universal basic internet—whether through the implementation of proposals from SpaceX, Amazon, or public actors—this will never be the case.

Contrary to expectations, we have not seen exponential growth in internet access worldwide in recent decades. According to Statista, as of July 2019, 56 percent of the global population had access to the internet. While this is a significant achievement, it has been 36 years since the advent of the internet, yet more than 40 percent of the global population is still offline. Even more alarming, we are unlikely to achieve universal internet access through conventional broadband methods until the year 2050.

In the age of digital literacy, communities without access to the internet are at a disadvantage in terms of employability and access to education. In fact, according to a study by the Technology & Social Change Group at the University of Washington Information School, the ability to access the internet has had significant positive effects on health, education, and employment outcomes for citizens of low- and middle-income countries by expanding their access to information and improving their opportunities for skill-building. It will become increasingly difficult for offline populations to catch up as innovation and the integration of technology into modern-day society expand.

Adding to this dismal outlook, we are also seeing a backsliding of internet freedom in societies around the world. There has been an uptick in online government surveillance in the United States while other large-scale influencers like China, India, Brazil, and Russia, continue to restrict their citizens’ internet usage. According to Freedom House’s 2018 report, of the 65 countries studied, representing 87 percent of all internet users, only 15 countries (23 percent) had what the think tank considers “free” internet access (measured by low levels of “obstacles to access,” “limits on content,” and “violations of users’ rights”). Furthermore, the report reveals that the number of countries with free internet access has declined for the eighth consecutive year, with 26 countries experiencing overall declines since June 2017. It is categorically in the best interest of the world to foil this global regression of free speech and access to information.

Universal basic internet provides domestic advantages, too. According to Our World in Data, 82 million Americans do not have access to the internet. This lack of internet access disproportionately affects lower-income Americans and perpetuates a cycle of poverty. The Pew Research Center notes that approximately 44 percent of American adults with household incomes less than $30,000 “don’t have home broadband services.”

Rural and low-income counties in the United States are particularly vulnerable to lack of internet access, with 39 percent of these populations unable to access broadband, compared to only 22 percent of the broader U.S. population. As we continue to make progress in revolutionary technology like artificial intelligence and machine learning, more and more jobs will become automated and digital skills will be an increasingly important prerequisite to employment. Without empowering all Americans through unbridled internet access, a large part of the population will be left behind.

In addition, contrary to what some critics may suggest, universal basic internet will not necessarily cause the collapse of the telecommunications industry. While universal basic internet would indeed connect the world to free internet, domestic telecoms would maintain the benefit of speed, especially with the advent of 5G technology. In societies where households are already paying for internet access (and can afford to do so), we would expect them to continue to pay for the added convenience of a high-speed connection. That is, assuming that both internet services are otherwise identical. On the other hand, if telecoms restrict internet freedom through censorship, they can expect to lose consumers who would defect to the slower, albeit unrestricted version. This is a classic example of free-market competition whereby consumers will choose the service that best supports their preference. Universal basic internet would thus have the added advantage of covertly pressuring telecoms around the globe to avoid censoring internet access, or else risk losing market share to the free, unrestricted version.

On the other hand, universal basic internet also has its drawbacks. It would be imprudent to arm private companies with the omnipotence to control the means by which large swaths of the global population access something as critical as the internet. In addition, given the expected reach of universal basic internet, private companies would be collecting unprecedented amounts of data that would create significant privacy concerns. However, strict global regulation of these companies—including the extent of their control over internet satellites once launched and the creation and enforcement of austere data privacy laws—could help to alleviate these concerns.

Today, many societies are more insulated from information, not developing at the rate needed to match technological innovation, or otherwise falling behind. Failure to act could have devastating consequences by reducing democratic norms, empowering authoritarian regimes, and enabling societies and countries that fall further behind to become ever larger financial burdens. On the other hand, investment in universal basic internet would fundamentally counter these trends by irreversibly liberating access to information everywhere, bolstering developing economies, thwarting authoritarian regimes, and expanding the global economy. Complacency during this critical time is not an option.

Photo above by Othmark of people in Havana, Cuba using a Wifi hotspot to access the internet. 



Amanda is a Master of International Affairs/Master of Public Administration dual degree candidate at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the London School of Economics and Political Science School of Public Policy. She is also a recipient of The Tamer Center for Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship. Her research and professional interests center around social entrepreneurship and leveraging technology and innovation to achieve social progress. She has previously worked for over 5 years in the technology sector at both small startups and large organizations like Microsoft. Amanda holds a B.A. in Psychology from McGill University.