A few weeks back, Cecilia Kang at the Washington Post reported that the FCC plans to propose universal free WiFi.  Kang added that, on one side, the wireless industry “has launched a fierce lobbying effort to persuade policymakers to reconsider the idea,” and on the other side, Google and Microsoft will “join forces to support the FCC’s proposal” becauase “[b]oth companies would benefit from a boom in new devices that could access the free WiFi networks.”

But the following day, many critics retorted that Kang’s article was exaggerated and even inaccurate.  See, for example, here, here, and here.  NPR noted that, “Basically, there is no new FCC plan that will in the relatively near future lead to an explosion of free Wi-Fi.  Rather, the story pulls together various pieces of FCC policy ideas that have been around in some cases for years.”

And in reality, even these ideas, contrary to some mainstream media outlets’ interpretations, do not include government provision of free Internet access.  The FCC is apparently only considering freeing up previously licensed broadband spectrum.  This spectrum could be used for Wi-Fi and would be especially effective because it occupies lower frequencies and thus could penetrate buildings and extend farther than today’s Wi-Fi.  Proponents believe “open” Wi-Fi will promote innovation, for instance if driverless cars could communicate through the unlicensed frequencies.  And broadband spectrums could allow the FCC to meet the increasing demand for mobile broadband.  But even if the FCC frees up broadband spectrums for unlicensed Wi-Fi use, this is a far cry from the government providing free Internet, to the surprise of many readers of Kang’s article.  Indeed, “open” spectrums, or “free Wi-Fi,” would not enable Internet access without Internet service itself, which needs to be provided by an ISP.

But Kang’s article, even if misleading, intrigued many mainstream readers; it went “viral” quite quickly and, at the time this was post was written, had garnered over 2,600 comments.  The idea captivated readers, even if for a day, and now begs the question:  Even if the FCC has no intention to provide universal free Internet, is this something it should consider?  It would be quite costly, but there are surely benefits.  As Kang suggests, lower-income users would enjoy the free flow of information without high service costs.  And, as Google and Microsoft are apparently well aware, such uses may pave the way for device innovation and integration unseen across the globe.  But should the government involve itself in this area?  Setting aside views on the proper role of government in society, such a service could cause collateral problems.

First, if the government provided universal free Internet, copyright holders might encounter an enforcement problem.  If users have anonymous access to intellectual property on the Internet, they have greater incentive to pirate that property by infringing copyrights, exacerbating the current piracy problem.  Courts are already grappling with the problem of users infringing copyrights anonymously over other users’ unprotected Wi-Fi services (see here for a previous post on open networks and Rule 20 joinder).  One solution to this problem would be to bolster accountability by removing anonymity.  For instance, Google already provides free wireless Internet service to the city of Mountain View (see here) and plans to provide the same to the Chelsea neighborhood of New York City (see here).  Google avoids the consequences of anonymous use by requiring its users to sign into their Google accounts before using the free service.

Second, assuming the government requires users to sign in before using free Internet, would the resulting system expose individuals to government overreaching and privacy intrusions?  For instance, ordinarily the government often subpoenas third-party ISPs.  Third-party ISPs, in turn, often seek to protect the identity and information of paying users.  But if the government is the ISP, this third-party protection may be lost.  One solution to avoid such an outcome would be for the government to contract with third-party ISPs to provide the service, reestablishing a public-private wall.  This would also be most cost-effective.

In sum, while Kang’s article may be misleading, it nonetheless stoked and revealed the public’s enthusiastic response to the concept of universal free government-provided Internet.  Perhaps such a prospect is not a reality today, but should it be tomorrow, or do the costs outweigh the benefits?

-Michael Dearington

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One Response to Kang’s Washington Post Article: Misleading but Intriguing

  1. Kate Haywood says:

    I had not read King’s article until your post- and I must say this is enlightening. I knew that the government was actively seeking to redistribute spectrum to accommodate the exploding popularity of smart phones and online streaming, along with other devices born from the Internet era. This task itself faces its own challenges, with big players throughout the media and technology industries having plenty of “skin in the game.” While I do think more Americans should have access to Internet, the barriers to free nationwide wifi are hardly insignificant. As Google starts to broaden its reach to entire communities, I could see the market reacting accordingly and privately-provided Internet access breaking new ground across the board. I would be surprised to see Congress interfere in an arena developed so quickly and successfully by the high-tech industry.