Unequal Access: A Pressing Moral Problem?

David Resnick


Supporters of universal Internet access argue that unequal access creates ethical problems which cannot be left to the vagaries of the market to solve. Such assertions depend upon functional arguments, claims that Internet access is necessary in order to achieve various well-defined desirable ends, and equity arguments, which appeal to distributive justice. Since functional arguments are necessary to support equitable arguments, they must be valid. In the case of Internet access, there must be good reason to believe that the technology will in fact deliver the benefits claimed. Moral appeals for universal Internet access combine functional arguments and equitable arguments.

Four major arguments claiming that unequal access to the Internet creates a special ethical dilemma are analyzed: 1) The digital divide argument: since the online population is disproportionately white and male, justice demands that actions be taken to increase the number of women and minorities. 2) The democratic citizenship argument: the Internet is, or will be, such an important tool for democratic participation and for acquiring politically relevant information that not having access to it would amount to the disenfranchisement of significant sections of the population. 3) The economic argument: The Internet is, or will be, such an important aspect of the overall economy that excluding segments of the population would prevent them from improving their economic condition. 4) The education argument: The Internet is, or will be, such an important educational resource that children denied access to it would be severely educationally handicapped.

These arguments are much weaker than they first appear and do not justify extensive public remedies. They often rely on dubious functional arguments and questionable moral assumptions. If the ideal of universal access is ever achieved, it will come through technological developments driven by market forces, not government subsidies or costly regulations intended to increase the number of people online. Universal Internet access is simply not a pressing moral problem.