The announcement of a deal with Google to bring ultra-fast Internet to the Triangle is being hailed like rain in the desert. Amid an economy that, flashes of optimism aside, remains in stagnation, we imagine that the super-fast Internet will super-charge our businesses, our schools, our very lives.
High-speed Internet doesn’t really improve the speed or, more importantly, the quality of how most of us do business –most of us don’t work for Netflix or engage in high-speed financial speculation. It also doesn’t make children learn faster or better – I somehow doubt that more HD streaming video will solve our education problems.
I rejoiced when my family first got broadband Internet when I was about 13, but I doubt it has made any of our lives richer or more productive. The usefulness of computers, for the most part, has little enough to do with how fast they are. No one wants delivery vans and school buses that go 20,000 mph.
In light of this, a massive dose of skepticism is appropriate. The upshot of the Google deal is that an enormously valuable piece of public infrastructure, which ought to be owned in common by the public, is handed over lock, stock and barrel to a private company based in California. This same company was deeply involved in the illegal, secret surveillance of all our Internet usage by the NSA. Its entire business model is founded on the premise that Google has the right to meticulously monitor and record every morsel of data that passes within its reach.
Do we in North Carolina share this premise?
Moreover, the law passed by the General Assembly to make public municipal Internet services illegal (save for that of Wilson, which was grandfathered in) is itself testament to the fact that public alternatives are feasible and sustainable. Indeed, at the time of that bill’s passage, the town of Chapel Hill was already laying its own high-speed fiber, which now presumably will be annexed by Google.
At the time of the law’s passage in 2011, its proponents argued that municipal or other government involvement in providing Internet service was “an interference in the free market.” Last time I checked, lobbying the government to outlaw an entire sector of potential competition was not much of a “free-market” approach. What erstwhile advocates of “free market” principles in the realm of infrastructure actually believe in is a doctrine of private ownership as an unchallenged system.
Why not simply contract Google – or even better, some of the many competent North Carolina businesses – to build a high-speed fiber network, which would then be owned by the public? Would any of us wish to drive on privately owned toll roads? Those who stand to benefit and, yes, profit from such ventures as the Google plan would prefer we did not ask such questions.
And do we not imagine that Google views owning our Internet infrastructure as a fantastic bonanza of the data on which it feeds? Google Fiber is a business venture, not an act of philanthropy.
Appeals to the virtues of the market are hollow in the cases of government-anointed monopolies like Google or, for that matter, Duke Energy. In the era of Gov. Pat McCrory, I understand that many of those in power see the private ownership of public infrastructure as a beau-ideal, part of the natural order. But North Carolinians should be aware that more public, open and democratic alternatives are possible.
Dawson Gage of Wilmington is an IT worker, freelance writer and aspiring law student.