Diary

The Internet as a Utility

One thing you will find echoed continually on Leftist web pages: the Internet should be a public utility that everyone has free access to.  There are some things that are attractive about this sort of idea, but there are a few that people may not have realized that aren’t so great.

Today we are beginning to have services which are exclusive to those with either high-speed Internet access or a smartphone.  For example, if you want to fly somewhere it is assumed from the very beginning that you are going to do this online, somehow.  There are numerous services for looking up cheaper airfares that are simply not available any other way.  If you want to make a reservation on the phone, you may have to pay extra fees to call an airline reservation phone line or use a travel agent.  This is certainly an example of the “digital divide” where you can save money if you spend money for Internet access.

Another example which I find particularly grating is Uber and Lyft.  These car-hire services are displacing taxis in some parts of the country.  There are two problems with them: the assumption that everyone has a smartphone and the circumventing of decades of taxi litigation and regulation.  If you do not have a smartphone, you are completely locked out of using these services.  This means the less-well-off have no choice but to use the same old taxi services we grew up with, regardless of their fares being competitive or not.  It also is a gateway to discrimination as the driver gets to review the prospective rider’s photo and destination before agreeing to doing the driving.

What many folks would like to see is the government move to a more online-friendly mode and possibly even have some services available exclusively online.  This sounds like it is real progress and might save the government some money, right?  Except today we have a substantial number of people that simply do not have access to either high-speed broadband or a smartphone.  So if we moved, say EBT card interaction, online it would shut out a lot of people from this service.

The solution, some say, is to make the Internet free for everyone and make sure that everyone has access.  They would no longer have to go to a library (library?  What’s that?) in order to use a computer and an Internet connection; they could have something in their home.  Of course, this brings into question the idea that everyone has a computer in their home – hint: they do not, and we wouldn’t like to subsidize this, either.

The argument here, however, is that moving government services online is clearly a two-edge sword.  Sure, it might reduce some costs but it turns out that creating a nice web page costs about as much as printing stuff out, if you do enough printing.  If the end user gets to do the printing and the form is just stored online all this tends to do is change it from the government spending around $0.001 per page to print forms out and stock them to the taxpayer/citizen spending as much as $1 a page to print it out.

There is another aspect to this: revision.  Let’s say the government comes out with a new spot to fill in for the 2016 tax forms that asks how many cats you have in your home.  Obviously, some intelligent folks are going to whip out their 2015 forms and compare them to the 2016 ones and see immediately that this information wasn’t being requested before.  This will spur endless debates (mostly uninformed) online and in bars about why the government might be wanting this information.  It might even eventually filter into the mainstream media with pundits asking why the government wants to know this.  It would be impossible for the IRS to defend this with a statement that they have always asked for this information and people just didn’t realize it before.  You know, it would be blamed on some Vast Right Wing Conspiracy for blowing the issue completely out of proportion; except the 2015 forms would be right there for everyone to compare against.

Now, let’s see what happens if in a few years all tax filing is done completely online after the entire country is guaranteed to have broadband access and everyone is really online.  Let’s be optimistic and say this happens in 2018.  So the 2019 tax web site is launched and it is asking for the hair color of your children.  Or a photo.  Everyone is saying they don’t remember answering this question or providing this information last year, but nobody saved the stuff from the prior year so nobody is really, absolutely sure.  There is no “smoking gun”, so to speak.

This is already happening with changes being made very quietly to web pages of both the government and political candidates.  There are ways to detect these changes but not everyone knows about them.  Mainstream news folks aren’t interested in this level of “nitpicking” so the new version is taken as the way things have always been.  For example, nobody is going ask Hillary why she took an item off her web page about sexual abuse victims having the right to be believed.

George Orwell wrote about a government agency that was tasked with the continual revision of printed materials and these were constantly being reprinted with the new changes.  It was illegal to keep old copies of anything.  This let the government do things and pretend to the population that nothing had changed.  Whether or not this is actually the goal of people proposing moving more and more government services and forms online or not is unimportant; what is important is that doing so would clearly enable this sort of revisionism and for the most part it would happen without anyone being able to prove anything.

No, this isn’t a call for people to track the government’s changes to its online presence.  The point is that when people want things moved online they are implying that the government is going to have to provide Internet access for all in order to interact with the government.  And there are consequences to the government moving things online, consequences that we may be very uncomfortable with in the future.