As the second decade of the new millennium begins, a major issue that will increasingly confront governments is whether the Internet is becoming so integral to day-to-day life that access to the Internet should be considered a basic human right.

The governments of Finland and Spain considered the question and concluded that the answer is Yes.  Both countries will guarantee their citizens that they will have access to at least one-megabyte service at a fixed price anywhere in the country.

Following their lead should be a slam-dunk for other developed nations. Unfortunately, some governments are moving in the opposite direction.  Hectored by the large music labels and Hollywood film studios, governments in countries such as the UK and France want to let Internet Service Providers simply pull the plug on customers that engage in file-sharing of music and films.

The record labels are tired of having to go to court to have file-sharing teenagers and grandmothers declared law-breakers and be saddled with fines of millions of dollars that they have no ability to pay.  Pulling the plug would be a lot cheaper and faster.  It is also draconian.  Pulling the plug on, say,  a university student, would cut them off from their most effective educational tool.

Someone should remind the music and film industries that the Internet was not conceived as a commercial enterprise.  Though it didn’t capture many headlines, the Internet recently marked its 40th anniversary. News agency Agence France Presse reported on a late October party on the University of California, Los Angeles campus that brought together a number of luminaries to celebrate the event.

“It’s the 40th year since the infant Internet first spoke,” said UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock, who headed the team that first linked computers online in 1969.  That’s when US telecom colossus AT&T ran lines connecting the computers for ARPANET, a project backed with money from a research arm of the US military.  Engineers began typing “LOG” to log into the distant computer, which crashed after getting the “O.” “So, the first message was ‘Lo’ as in ‘Lo and behold’,” Kleinrock recounted. “We couldn’t have a better, more succinct first message.”

ARPANET soon came to be known as the Internet, but it was pigeonholed  as the techie network for academia and the military.

Flash forward a couple of decades, and private-sector computer networking was gaining popularity, with services such as Compuserve and AOL blazing the trail.  These were strictly commercial services, while the Internet was still considered a public good.  The expression “information superhighway” was gaining traction, and most pundits agreed something dramatic was happening, but no one knew for sure the form it would take.

In April 1994, two middle-aged lawyers had the temerity to post an advertisement for their immigration law practice on Usenet, a large network within the Internet. As reported in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, “for the transgression of sending what amounted to unsolicited electronic junk mail over the publicly owned Internet, Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel became the targets of a tar-and-feathering in cyberspace.  The hate mail, electronic “flame mail,” the threats poured in by the tens of thousands, from outraged Internetters who considered the blatant commercial pitch a violation of network ethics.

“Their home address was published, and people were urged to burn down their house. Hundreds of unwanted magazines and mail-order products were ordered in their names. Information “bombs” clogged their electronic mailbox.”

And so a commercialized Internet began.

Today the dynamic between the Internet as a public good and a commercialized marketplace has settled into a live-and-let-live truce.  While eBay and Amazon peddle their wares, students from points around the world use open-source software to gather and brainstorm.  As William Yeats noted, “Education is not filling a bucket, but lighting a fire,” and no tool is more equipped to light that fire than the World Wide Web.

As reported in the Wall Street Journal, in the U.S. a growing number of homeless people with laptops are checking into shelters at night looking to get online.  “You don’t need a TV. You don’t need a radio. You don’t even need a newspaper,” said one aspiring poet, who has been homeless for two years. “But you need the Internet…”

The Internet is the essential means to many ends.  Moreover, access alone is insufficient.  It is not enough, for example, to simply say that youth today have the right to a Wi-Fi hotspot in their local community center.  They also have the right to have the tools and knowledge to make the best use of that connection.  This means they have the right to access knowledge, entertainment, and collaborate. Their right is not just to have access to the Internet, but to make full use of its potential.