Is Internet a public utility?


Fact Box

  • The Internet became publicly available on April 30, 1993 after computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee released the coding for WorldWideWeb. 
  • According to Cornell Law School, a public utility ‘is an entity that provides goods or services to the general public.’
  • California Assemblymember Jim Wood is sponsoring measure AB1714, which would classify broadband as a public utility.
  • A 2020 Consumer Reports Survey reported that 80% of Americans believe broadband should be a public utility.
  • Congress included internet access as a utility when defining ‘covered utility payment’ in the CARES Act.

Elliot (No)

Internet is not a public utility, as it has very little in common with other public utilities and is relatively accessible free of charge. Firstly, it’s important to stress that people can survive without access to the Internet. In contrast, other public utilities provide basic necessities, such as heating, running water, shelter, and perhaps medicine. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, examples of public utilities include transportation, heating, water, and sanitation. The Internet is rarely mentioned in various definitions of public utility. This becomes something of a slippery slope, and labeling the Internet as a public utility could lead to equally nonsensical things falling under the same category.

Likewise, public utilities require government involvement, which comes with its bureaucratic processes to help manage any product or project. This can slow down decision-making and responsiveness to market changes and consumer demands/needs. It is also worth mentioning that people without the Internet can access it easily. Standing in a particular area can provide access to public wifi. It is not even necessary to go into a cafe. Public libraries also provide access to the Internet free of charge. Again, the same cannot be said for food, water, medicine, transportation, etc. In fact, because wifi signals pass freely through the air, it would be equally wild to label oxygen as a public utility. 

Some might argue that it is only possible to find a job or friends with the Internet (making it essential), but direct methods are often more effective—like going outside and interacting face to face. Finally, one should remember that human beings without access to the Internet survived without much trouble for most of recorded history. 

Rob (Yes)

Once a luxury, the Internet has seamlessly woven itself into every fabric of society to become an essential public utility and a part of life. The Internet, like public roads and highways, acts as a digital portal linking people from all walks of life, playing an essential role in communication, education, and healthcare, all of which are critical to the operation of our modern society.

It has also leveled the playing field by providing access to opportunities and information. Regardless of economic status, people from all walks of life now have virtually equal opportunities to participate in the digital economy and access information on whichever topics tickle their interest. This has also led to the rise of internet millionaires and the creation of many other avenues for earning income online.

In times of crisis, like natural disasters or public health emergencies, the Internet is a vital tool for communication, coordination, and disseminating important information. During the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, the Internet was a crucial player in curbing the spread of the virus and keeping communication alive since physical interaction was cut to almost zero

Like other public utilities, governments have often stepped in to ensure the Internet is regulated and serves the public interest. In addition, the US government, among others, continues to invest in broadband infrastructure to expand internet access. This is because the Internet is the digital infrastructure that powers our daily lives, just as roads and highways do for physical transportation. The country and society at large wouldn’t function without the Internet. Recognizing it as a public utility acknowledges its indispensability and ensures it remains a cornerstone of modern society.

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