December 1st, 2008

Land of the Wired? FCC and Free Internet Access

In this economy, just about everyone is looking to cut costs that aren’t necessities.  Maybe that means cancelling a few magazine subscriptions, downgrading a gym membership or opting for a smaller cable package–but what about the Internet?  Depending on the quality and speed of your connection, the cost for having Internet in your home can run a rough average of $50/month, or $600 each year.  And that’s not even factoring in any data plans you might have for a smartphone.  What if you didn’t have to pay for Internet or Wi-Fi at all?

Sure, you’d save money, but under the plan being discussed at this month’s FCC meeting, your connection would also be a little bit slower and a little bit censored.  Part of the deal is that the content would have to be porn-free, and free of any other content that might be deemed unsuitable for children.  This makes sense to an extent, since of course a government agency doesn’t want to be seen as an enabler for inappropriate material.  According to lobby group M2Z Networks, if you decide to pay for the premium service to get a faster connection, you can turn the filter off, which is not too different from parental control options that exist with most other service providers and some browsers.

I’m for free Internet, but I also believe that with it must come a better understanding of filters.  It is too easy for a filter to act as the only form of online oversight in the home, and parents have to know that they don’t always work.  Most filters (including the one that the FCC would use) operate based on key words and phrases which are found in domain names; for example, a filter might block anything from a domain with the word ‘sex’ in the name.  However, this can work against certain websites that are largely undeserving of being censored for young people.

Case in point: In college, I produced and directed my university’s production of “The Vagina Monologues,” which ran simultaneously with hundreds of other productions of the play around Valentine’s Day.  Sponsored by Eve Ensler’s V-Day Foundation, each production raised money for charities dealing with domestic abuse, rape, HIV/AIDS and the like.  All the producers and directors could communicate with each other through emails and a discussion board.  One day, I read about a woman producing the show tried to visit the V-Day website at a school library, only to find it was blocked by the school for containing keywords that triggered the university’s filter.  This was problematic for her in terms of getting information she needed to produce the play, providing details about the show for ticketholders, gaining additional sponsorships and more.  The irony, of course, was that her university was essentially blocking her proactive efforts to combat sex crimes.

So, yes, I’m for free Internet.  I really believe that in our modern world, the web is becoming more and more essential to gaining vital information for finding health care, applying to school, finding a job and managing your finances.  A computer lab is virtually useless if none of the machines can connect to the web.  Some wireless providers fear that free services will threaten their very existence, but I think it will only encourage them to be more innovative and adapt to change, just like every other industry.  However, with free and open access comes great responsibility in learning how to use it.  That responsibility lies squarely with schools, parents, librarians and other role model figures.  If all runs smoothly, free Internet and wi-fi could come to you as early as this summer.  Will you be ready?

For more on filters and having a positive online experience, please download our freeLAMPlit resource guide, “A Beginner’s Guide to Going Online.”

–Emily Long

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