Free internet access is unworkable and wrong

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The Independent Online

The recently introduced Human Rights Act has caused an avalanche of test cases. The one that is currently attracting a lot of interest is the proposal of free internet access for all. For some time now, various bolshy factions of online users have been pushing the Government to provide such access. Indeed, Tony Blair has been making positive noises on the subject for some time, though he has not specified how it would work.

The recently introduced Human Rights Act has caused an avalanche of test cases. The one that is currently attracting a lot of interest is the proposal of free internet access for all. For some time now, various bolshy factions of online users have been pushing the Government to provide such access. Indeed, Tony Blair has been making positive noises on the subject for some time, though he has not specified how it would work.

The rationale seems to be that if it is a good thing, then the Government should pay for us all to have it free. I have reread all the arguments recently. If they were extrapolated, we should demand free electricity, free housing and free newspapers, as those undoubtedly are good things and therefore could fall under the new Human Rights Act.

It is not nice to live in a society that has haves and have-nots. However, providing all nice-to-have things for free is clearly not a workable scenario. If we accept that goods and services are generally to be paid for, the widespread advocation of a free internet is somewhat puzzling. The internet is as expensive to provide as electricity; there is a massive cost involved in the daily, ongoing, and reliable provision of email and dial-up accounts. There is a large infrastructure that needs to be maintained on a daily basis, and a large number of highly qualified people are involved in its provision.

If that infrastructure was to be provided free, it would mean Tony must find a rather astronomical amount of dosh. This money would have to come from some other government pocket, ie the NHS or education. The only other viable alternative is to raise taxes. However, in the pre-election period, this is somewhat unlikely. It may make the argument even more vulnerable if the voters realise that since the biggest activity online is still downloading naughty pictures, the call for a free internet is also a call for free porn. It would certainly be a great vote winner in certain groups of society, but it may be tricky to persuade the rest of the taxpayers that free porn is a right under the new act.

So where is the call for a free internet coming from? My guess is well-meaning people who clearly do not understand the distinction between a free browser and a free internet. A browser is essentially a piece of software that, once written, doesn't need ongoing maintenance or other forms of support that may cost the providing company money. So there are sound arguments as to why browsers should be free. The same argument has been applied to music: if something can be distributed electronically then it should be free, because there are no ongoing costs for the support of music once it sits on someone's harddrive.

Once browsers were released free, the genie was out of the bottle and it created a groundswell of feeling that browsers and music should be free for ever, and if that is the case, then perhaps the internet connection should be free as well. However, browsers do not require masses of hardware, bandwidth, staff, ransom money to BT and other nasty fees that an ISP has to pay.

In the light of the above, it was perhaps rash of Tony Blair to promise a free internet if he had no intention of paying for it. There is no such thing as a free lunch, although there are free browsers. Before you mix the two and mount a revolution demanding free internet connection, consider the implication that it may come at the cost of having something a bit more important, such as a health service or useable roads.

Eva@never.com

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