Emerging information technologies such as the Internet challenge us to think about whether access to the technology should be a privilege or a right. In recognition of the emergent social demand for broadband access, this paper urges a reconsideration of Internet access as a social right.
This is a project that I started when I took the seminar, Citizenship Debates with Gershon Shafir, whose lucid lectures on citizenship inspired me to think about citizenship as a framework for rights claiming. I started to think about how information-based resources and services become a right in the US, which led me to think about how expanding internet access could be framed as a social right. I was invited to present this paper at the International Sociology Association's Research Committee on Poverty, Social Welfare, and Social Policy (RC 19) in Sweden. I have had to put this project on hold until I finish my dissertation fieldwork. It is still something I am very passionate about and would love to chat about if anyone else is working on this topic.
Abstract: Emerging information technologies such as the Internet challenge us to think about whether access to the technology should be a privilege or a right. In recognition of the emergent social demand for broadband access, this paper urges a reconsideration of Internet access as a social right. This examination looks at how information has accumulated rights over time in the US. A distinction is made between the availability of information, which is tied traditionally to civil rights, and the accessibility of information, which is tied to social rights. The U.S. has a strong foundation in information availability, reflective of the way that communication is regulated more as a civil than a social right in the U.S. However, a comparison between the Communication Act of 1934 and the Telecommunication Act of 1996 the only two acts in which communication policy was federally legislated reveals that at one time, communication was once considered a social right. A regime shift between the 1934 and 1996 Acts reframed communication within a market-based rationale assuming that free markets are best able to support civil rights and economic growth. As a result, access to services that were once considered a social right for all have become a privilege for some, reflecting an overall shift in which individuals are treated less as citizens and more as consumers. This trend is indicative of a scaling back of social rights, and arguably, a scaling back of social citizenship rights in the U.S. Rights expansion or shrinkage, as seen in the availability and access of information, can provide an indicator of the strength of social citizenship. download the paper