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Should the internet be free?


Should the internet be free?

For most of us, life without the internet is almost impossible to imagine. Already today, you might have used it to check your emails, log in to Facebook or Twitter, look up the time for your train or browse possible holiday destinations to beat the January and Monday blues.

If you’re lucky enough to have access to the internet though, you’re still in the slight minority worldwide. Website InternetLiveStats estimates that there are over 3.5 billion people on the planet with internet access today. With the global population approaching 7.5 billion, this figure is still some way short of 50%.

Many of us view the internet as a commodity and are well aware of how much money it creates. In 2014, John Chambers, CEO of IT giant Cisco, estimated the web will be worth $19 trillion (£15.6 trillion) over the next decade. So, when the internet is this valuable and lucrative, why restrict its availability? Why make people pay to have access to it, and why deny people that access based on what part of the world they live in?

One person who advocates a free internet is Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, who believes that everyone should have the right to “basic services” online. He argues that the framework for this is already largely in place, with 90% of the world’s population within range of an internet network.

A cynic might argue that Zuckerberg has a vested interest in getting more people on the internet, but a 2014 report from Deloitte suggested major economic and even humanitarian benefits to expanding the web in developing nations. These including boosting productivity by 25%, contributing more than $2 trillion in GDP and helping 160 million individuals to move out of poverty.

The internet can certainly be argued to be not only valuable, but essential as a 21st-Century service, so why can’t we all just have it? Why should we have to pay for broadband every month when it’s so clearly in the interests of the economy for us all to be using it?

The answer is that unfortunately, there are many services that we can’t live without, yet we still have to pay for them. I’ve heard the argument that the web should be considered a utility as necessary as water and electricity. That may or may not be the case, but what certainly is true is that neither water nor electricity are free, and we’re expected to stump up the money to pay for them.

Even in the Western world, there are essential needs that people are struggling to pay for. When hearing stories of people having to choose between eating or heating their homes, the idea of a free internet seems some way down the pecking order. Consider as well that while free healthcare is in place here, it isn’t in the U.S. Meanwhile, Americans may be taken aback to discover that Brits are expected to pay for the right to watch television.

All this considered, the idea of a free internet seems something of a romantic and distant vision, but at least the growing numbers of internet users worldwide give signs of a more connected world, and hope of a more economically equal one.

John Murray
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