Federal Communications Commission member Michael O’Rielly yesterday argued that “Internet access is not a necessity or human right” and called this one of the most important “principles for regulators to consider as it relates to the Internet and our broadband economy.”

O’Rielly, one of two Republicans on the Democratic-majority commission, outlined his views in a speech before the Internet Innovation Alliance, a coalition of businesses and nonprofits (see transcript).

O’Rielly described five “governing principles” that regulators should rely on, including his argument that Internet access should not be considered a necessity. Here’s what he said:

It is important to note that Internet access is not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans and doesn’t even come close to the threshold to be considered a basic human right. I am not in any way trying to diminish the significance of the Internet in our daily lives. I recognized earlier how important it may be for individuals and society as a whole. But, people do a disservice by overstating its relevancy or stature in people’s lives. People can and do live without Internet access, and many lead very successful lives. Instead, the term “necessity” should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water.

michael-orielly-640x361

It is even more ludicrous to compare Internet access to a basic human right. In fact, it is quite demeaning to do so in my opinion. Human rights are standards of behavior that are inherent in every human being. They are the core principles underpinning human interaction in society. These include liberty, due process or justice, and freedom of religious beliefs. I find little sympathy with efforts to try to equate Internet access with these higher, fundamental concepts. From a regulator’s perspective, it is important to recognize the difference between a necessity or a human right and goods such as access to the Internet. Avoiding the use of such rhetorical traps is wise.

O’Rielly’s other governing principles are that “the Internet cannot be stopped,” that we should “understand how the Internet economy works” and “follow the law; don’t make it up,” and that “the benefits of regulation must outweigh the burdens.” O’Rielly was nominated to the commission by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate; the president nominates both Democratic and Republican commissioners, ensuring that the ruling party maintains a 3-2 advantage.

While O’Rielly is certainly correct that one can live without Internet access but not food or water, the FCC is essentially required by Congress to act on the presumption that all Americans should have Internet access. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to “encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans” by implementing “price cap regulation, regulatory forbearance, measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment.”

The FCC is required to determine on a regular basis whether broadband is being extended to all Americans “in a reasonable and timely fashion” and must “take immediate action to accelerate deployment” if it finds this isn’t happening. The last time the FCC did this was in January of this year; O’Rielly voted against the FCC’s conclusion that broadband isn’t being deployed quickly enough and that the definition of broadband should be changed to support higher-bandwidth applications.

O’Rielly and Wheeler have disagreed on several other votes affecting broadband availability and the terms under which it’s offered. O’Rielly cast unsuccessful, dissenting votes against Wheeler’s plan toreclassify Internet providers as common carriers and impose net neutrality rules, against Wheeler’s plan to overturn state laws that protect Internet providers from municipal competition, and against Wheeler’s plan to use the LifeLine phone service subsidy program to subsidize broadband for poor people.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a speech today that “broadband should be available to everyone everywhere.”

The FCC was created in 1934 with the mandate to ensure universal access to telephone service at reasonable prices. Today there is a “Universal Service Fund” to subsidize access to Internet and other communications services but no strict requirement that everyone in the US be offered broadband. Availability varies widely throughout the country, with many rural customers lackingfast, reliable Internet service.

World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee says that Web access should be considered a human right.

“Access to the Web is now a human right,” Berners-Leesaid in a 2011 speech. “It’s possible to live without the Web. It’s not possible to live without water. But if you’ve got water, then the difference between somebody who is connected to the Web and is part of the information society, and someone who (is not) is growing bigger and bigger.”

United Nations report in 2011 said disconnecting people from the Internet is a human rights violation. Vint Cerf, who co-created the networking technology that made the Internet possible,wrotethat Internet access is not a human right, arguing that “technology is an enabler of rights, not a right itself… at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.”

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