Annals of Unhelpful Polling: Internet Access Edition

A new BBC poll is garnering plenty of press attention for its striking finding that 78% of global respondents believe that Internet access “should be a fundamental right of all people.” Fascinating!  Except… what exactly does that mean?

The obvious problem here is that, at least as it’s worded in English, the question is ambiguous between two equally plausible readings.  Especially when juxtaposed with another question about whether the Internet should be regulated by government, it could be understood as asking whether there’s a fundamental negative right to be free to use the Internet – to read and communicate free of government censorship or other onerous barriers.  That’s probably how we’d interpret a parallel question about whether people had a “fundamental right” to “access” information via newspapers or books.

Many folks, though, seem to be reading it as a measure of support for a fundamental positive right to be provided with (broadband?) Internet access. And that just seems a bit silly, frankly. There’s a decent case to be made that it’s desirable for governments that can afford it to make some kind of public Internet access available to citizens who can’t.  You can even imagine that, a few years down the line, some states in the developed world might have moved so heavily toward interacting with the public online that it would become more or less necessary for full political equality.  But a basic human right? Something that governments are “violating fundamental rights” if they don’t do? It’s not just that I don’t believe this; I have trouble imagining that much of anyone literally thinks so.  A few of my friends at Free Press, maybe, but 4/5 of the world’s population?  Color me dubious.

I’ll confess being startled at the response to a much less ambiguous question: A global majority agreed that “the Internet should never be regulated by any level of government anywhere.” While I find this pattern of responses congenial enough, I can’t take it much more seriously.  After all, what falls under the category of “regulation of the Internet”?  Censorship, of course, which I expect is what most people immediately thought of.  But in reality, of course, there are a whole panoply of laws and rules that at least arguably “regulate” the Internet in some sense, some of which even I would approve of. I have many, many issues with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, for instance, but there’s nothing wrong with the idea that there should be a basic protocol that provides both a safe harbor for service providers hosting user content and a mechanism for complaining about copyright-infringing or libelous or otherwise tortious material.  Probably there are other “regulations” I’d approve too, but I’d have to sit and think about it for an hour to even enumerate all the different kinds of rules that might be considered to “regulate the Internet” in one way or another.

Because it’s at least not susceptible to such dramatically divergent readings, this response might be more useful as a kind of big-picture attitude check. But the reality is that almost none of the respondents can really mean it because even someone steeped in tech policy would have to sit and think about the question for a half hour to really get a grip on what it entails. Or might entail. If the BBC were engaged in some kind of serious social science, they probably would have worked up better questions.  But of course, that’s not the business they’re in.  They’re in the business of asking the sort of question that will let them run exciting headlines that get re-tweeted and drive page views. And 100% of respondents in my poll of myself agree they’ve succeeded.