If the most diligent and efficient way to provide public information to citizens is through the Internet, then Internet access should be free. Free access to information is not only a right, but it is also an integral component of the government’s responsibility in creating informed citizens. The government provides multiple quality-controlled ways to access public information. This includes, but is not limited to, physical records at city hall, public hearings, and free public records databases. However, as the government continues to digitize public information, a new approach to providing access to this public information will be necessary. An approach that requires all citizens to have access to the Internet will ensure the public retains free access to the information found in places and documents such as libraries, public reports, and phone books.
Phone books and pay phones are examples of free access to public information. It is archaic that we still print in such high volumes. In Chicago alone, 1.2 million phone books were distributed this year. Supporters argue that greater than 50% of all Americans still use phone books, but every unwanted phone book incurs a fine for the phone company. The remaining 50% of Americans have a better resource to find public information in their pocket, their smartphone. Just like traditional public pay phones (when is the last time you saw one of those?), phone books are slowly being phased out for their smartphone counterparts. The smartphone gives us the functionality of the payphone and the information of the phone book all in one small portable device. Yes, there are great arguments for the use of pay phones including ensured access to phone services for those who can’t afford them. However, there is an equally compelling argument to provide public information to everyone in the most responsible, effective, and productive manner possible. Free Internet access as a means for public information would support that goal.
An educated public is vital to the existence of our democracy. Accordingly, the government has historically advocated literacy through institutions like the public library. However, traditional forms of free access to public information are no longer the most convenient or productive. Court records, marriage licenses, and phone books are all better utilized in electronic formats. The shift toward electronic repositories is becoming the norm. Legal electronic documents with electronic signatures are considered just as valid a their handwritten counterparts. Security clearances are digital from the initial application to the fingerprinting process. Shouldn’t we extrapolate these digitized models, such as the security clearance process, into all forms of public information? However, in order to do this successfully, Internet access has to be free everywhere, all the time. To achieve free Internet access in a quality-controlled manner, management by the government, as with other forms of outsourced dissemination of public information, will be required.
Hence, the government should supply reliable free Internet access to the masses everywhere. The hope is that public access to government information increases or at minimum maintains public literacy. Lack of access to government information debilitates people from interacting with the local, state, and federal government. The government is well aware of and has even made preparation for America’s Digital Age. Last year, a panel from the National Academy of Public Administration put out a report with 15 recommendations regarding ways to better position the federal government in our digital society for the Government Printing Office. While the recommendations prompt the retention and safeguard of digital documents, and the continued mandate of free public access, it does not focus on how this access will be given to the masses. If there is a shifting tide in how the masses obtain their access to government information, the government should be able to accommodate the need. The requirement to meet this need is competent and successful access. Thus, Internet access should be free. This ensures that the free government repositories of public information remain totally free and available.