Needed: free public access to Internet
You live in a city, have a job, walk into your office and fire up your computer. It’s connected and you access the Internet—everything from email to entertainment to news to general information appears on your screen. You are happy because you have not paid for the computer, or access to the Internet, or even for the information that you are consuming or are being entertained with.
Even at home, you have seamless Internet connectivity through cable or Wi-Fi. All your devices are automatically connected and you have access to free or paid information. Obviously, access to the Internet or information in your case is like basic infrastructure, which is taken for granted.
In contrast, consider Kulwanti Devi. She is 42, lives in Kalu Sarai, an urban village in south Delhi, and works as a domestic help. She is barely literate and her husband works as a cook for students preparing for IIT entrance test in the institutes located in the neighbourhood. Kulwanti’s daughters are in high school and early years of college.
They don’t have computers or access to the Internet and every now and then, she talks about how much money she has to spend for her daughters to go to cyber cafes to access the Internet, as there is much educational content and projects for which her children need the Internet. In this case, Internet or access to online information is not a basic infrastructure that Kulwanti enjoys, or for that matter most of those who live in Kalu Sarai or any of those 500 urban villages of Delhi and many other slums.
Far away, in Bihar’s Muzaffarpur district, about 400 women in the villages of Maniyari block queue up all day, and sometimes overnight, before an Internet-connected laptop.
They pay a small fee for a printout of the list of workers who, as per official records, have been paid for the government’s rural jobs guarantee scheme. However, many of them were not actually paid and getting the printout is the only way with which they can stake claim before officials that they were never paid but were listed as having been paid.
Hundreds of thousands of people live in villages who want to access the Internet for information about their rights, entitlements and utilities. Even though the information is available on the Internet for free, there is nothing called public Internet access points where they can go and access information without paying for the cost of connectivity or the cost of accessing information.
If a public road or a path is real-life infrastructure, it is given that we don’t have to pay for using the road as means of access, except for expressways, when we pay for the convenience in tolls.
However, when it comes to seeking information, we often end up paying, not because we are supposed to, but because of exploitation and corruption.
On the other hand, for every aspect of the virtual infrastructure (access to the Internet or information highway), we always pay in some form or the other. Incidentally, in this case, once we are connected and pay for the service, most of the information is free and the experience of being exploited or subjected to corruption comes to naught.
Unfortunately, for those who live in villages—80% of India’s population are yet to be connected to the Internet—access to the Internet is not only not available for free, but they have to pay perhaps more than others for the access. Since one of our foundation’s most important missions is to ensure access to information in villages as soon as we identify a village, the biggest issue is how to get the Internet (see accompanying graphs for the cost of Internet access in rural India).
At best, it is either available in the form of 2G through mobile devices (which cannot be used as public access points) or through state-owned BSNL, whose connection is like a road that does not exist.
We often end up bringing broadband Internet connectivity from faraway places through wireless technologies, which is an infrastructure cost we pay on behalf of the government. In other words, as far as access to information is concerned, even if the government says it is a basic right, and the world makes us believe so, in reality, access to the Internet is always paid for, or available on demand, and not available as a basic right.
Quite obviously, access to the Internet is never free. One of the reasons perhaps is that it relies on telecom infrastructure, which is not available for free.
Besides, telecom infrastructure all over the world is based on auctioned spectrum and operators have to earn returns on their investment. It is exactly like a toll road for which we pay. But if the roads are built by the government using taxpayer money, we do not pay for using the road as means of access.
Similarly, why don’t we have public Internet access options paid through taxpayer money and thus free to access? Why are even government-owned Internet access infrastructure paid for?
In the modern world, where every kind of information comes to be parked on the Internet, the reliance on it is even more than physical access like roads.
What about those who cannot and may never be in a position to pay for the Internet? Already, out of the 7 billion people on earth, 62% remains unconnected to the Internet.
In India, more than a billion people are yet to be connected to the Internet. Most of them are poor, incapable of paying for the Internet or access the information that comes through it.
Is that what the character of democratic Internet is all about? Is the virtual democracy called the Internet only available to those who can pay for it? Is democracy for those who can buy it? Is democracy for sale?
Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and chair of Manthan and mBillionth awards. He is also a member of the working group for IT for masses at the ministry of communication & IT. Tweet him @osamamanzar