Law in the Internet Society
One theme that has emerged throughout this course is how the commodification of information stifles access to knowledge. As somebody with regular access to high-speed (wired) internet and virtually unlimited resources at my disposal at Columbia University, it’s easy for me to imagine how my distant relatives in the slums of India are immediately at a disadvantage to me – not because they are any less capable, but simply because they lack reliable access to the web and its world of information.

You might have taken a moment, then, to explain some of what you know, or could find out, rather than "imagine." Your conclusions as to the actual life differences made by the bandwidth allocations and costs involved, as against the life differences made by the rules against sharing what the Indian poor can already afford the bandwidth to receive, might be very useful.

Although the example I just gave is certainly a tragedy,

You didn't actually give an example of a tragedy. You didn't explain how bandwidth allocation—as opposed to the rules against sharing on the one hand, or corrupt and ineffective electrical infrastructure—in fact contributes to welfare losses.

it is just one of many examples of how much worse life can be in poor countries; since there are also numerous public health disparities, and the GDP of these countries is lower (meaning that many people cannot even afford to buy computers, let alone access the internet),

GDP is a gross measure of economic output. What people can afford to buy depends on their income, not the total output of goods and services in the economy. An egalitarian distribution of a smaller pie will result in more human welfare than a plutocratic distribution of a larger pie. Right?

I think it may be easy for some people living in the first world to lump the disparity in the third world’s access to knowledge as just one more example of a global disparity between rich and poor countries.

Maybe. But domestic inequality is not quite as easy to overlook as you suggest. Doing so takes practice.

But what about the disparity within our very own country?

Susan Crawford’s recent op-ed piece on “The New Digital Divide” is particularly illuminating for me because it opens the reader up to the growing disparity within the United States. Crawford writes,

“_While we still talk about the Internet, we increasingly have two separate access marketplaces: high-speed wired and second-class wireless. High-speed access is a superhighway for those who can afford it, while racial minorities and poorer and rural Americans must make do with a bike path._”

Crawford raises the point that in thirty years, the very African-Americans and Latinos, whose access to knowledge is being stifled by the interest groups that keep high-speed internet unnecessarily expensive and inaccessible, will make up more than half of the US workforce. She also invokes a ‘good is the enemy of the best’ argument, explaining how (relatively cheaper) access to smartphones will provide poor Americans with enough internet access to survive, but leaving them unable to take advantage of the whole slew of information that requires high-speed wired internet, such as online job interviews, educational programs, healthcare, politics, and entertainment.

Throughout this course we have discussed how dispersed internet access (i.e. having thousands of wifi hotspots instead of a mobile data connection) was effectively killed by the telecommunications lobby, who have fought for the “broadcast” structure we currently have in place even though it is more expensive and less efficient. Crawford elaborates on this point, explaining how lobbying in the cable markets has resulted in monopolistic structures that allow each operator to extract significant rents and make the rest of the country (which cannot afford to pay these rents) increasingly worse off.

What is the solution?

A complete “best-case” solution requires a complete overhaul of the broadcast structure we currently have in place, which, in turn, requires the dismantling of powerful corporate self-interest groups that have lobbied so hard to increase the digital divide.

No. Better sharing of existing bandwidth would be a very good way of reducing the disparity. Open your wireless router. Teach other people to open their wireless routers. There are many other things we ought to do that are more complicated, but if we start with the simple ones we will make the larger steps much easier to take.

However I think it is also important to consider some possible short-term solutions that could be deployed in the mean time, particularly for education and employment.

How about discussing the simple thing you could do yourself that would work?

1. Education.

Internet classrooms are becoming increasingly commonplace, and as my last post discussed, a student no longer needs to spend a lot of money in order to receive a high-quality education. Even the “certification” process is increasingly moving online, allowing people to save money to earn a degree, and not letting factors such as one’s location stand in the way of a high-quality education. The problem is that accessing online videoconferencing and even lectures often requires fast internet, which many people cannot afford.

Are you sure? On what basis did you come to that conclusion? Could you show some factual material to the reader who wants to know something other than your opinion on this essentially technical question?

Possible short-term solution: It is obviously in the government’s interest to promote education, and several private foundations and scholarships exist to financially support students who want to attend universities, but who cannot afford the expensive tuition. Suppose that instead of receiving financial aid to attend a four-year university, a student instead received a certain number of ‘credits’ (sponsored by the government or universities), which gave the student access to high-speed online educational lectures or classrooms at his/her local public library, high school, or university. Future credits would be awarded based on the student’s performance. This could be extended to start at the middle school and high school level, so that a student’s potential scholarship to a university could be based on the student’s online educational performance, and the number of credits the student earned.

This is the solution to a bandwidth problem? Assuming that the difficulty is bandwidth, why wouldn't the solution be to free textbooks, which have been successfully used to teach people pretty much everything for the last half a thousand years, and which require no significant bandwidth to distribute?

2. Employment.

Job interviews are increasingly moving online, and many job applications are only available online. The reason for this shift is mainly that it is cheaper and more efficient for the employer to screen applicants this way. Almost all employers, however, want to maximize the number of qualified applications they receive for a position, even if the applicant is not wealthy enough to afford high-speed Internet.

Possible short-term solution: The bigger employers (who hire the most people), including the government, could sponsor or subsidize “job application centers” in central areas, where high-speed internet would be made available exclusively for the use of job applications and interviews. This kind of sponsorship would serve two purposes: (1) it would be good PR for the employer; (2) it would allow the employer to receive a higher number of qualified applications, even from those people who may have otherwise not been able to afford an application, because of the requirement of expensive high-speed internet access.

Once again, what is the factual basis for the belief that the primary problem in getting employment is that the poor do not have gigabit videoconferencing? Most people seem to be aware of non-bandwidth contributions to unemployment.


I could invoke similar ‘short-term’ solutions for access to online healthcare, by allowing insurance providers or the government to sponsor ‘centers’ where patients could use high-speed internet exclusively to communicate with doctors, saving both the patients and providers money in the long run and improving access. The bigger question, however, is whether these “good” short-term solutions would end up precluding the kind of long-run “best” reformation that is necessary to truly allow free information to flow to all citizens of the global economy. If so, it remains unclear whether the short-term benefits of the solutions I proposed are justified.

No, the question is what data supported the belief that the problems of educational opportunity, employment and healthcare delivery are problems of insufficient bandwidth for full-motion videoconferencing. This may be true, although it doesn't seem to be true, because pretty much everyone else who knows something about these problems thinks that insufficient videoconferencing bandwidth in poor communities is not a primary contributor to the problem they know about. But you may in fact have found some information that makes everybody else wrong. You just need to give us that data so we can confirm your conclusion. Without some facts in support of your assertions, the reader is likely to conclude you're just talking through your hat.

-- OmarHaroun - 21 Dec 2011



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r3 - 07 Sep 2012 - 16:49:20 - IanSullivan
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