Every now and then a city will announce plans to provide free Internet access points around the city, and there will often be praise from the hi-tech community. Or a state will move to ban such initiatives and heaps of scorn will be heaved on top of them and the local cable and DSL provides. That's a mistake.
While I realize folk love to hate their cable companies (often with good reason) and the woeful state of broadband in this country, having the cities provide the access is worse idea.
Once municipal broadband is wide spread and available at no additionl cost than the taxes people are already paying, then the rational, individual decision is to stop paying Comcast or someone else for Internet access. With enough people doing that, residential broadband from private companies will eventually go away.
That may be fine, assuming the municipalities allow free and open Internet access, but I'm not convinced they will. There are many great things on the net, but there are many foul ones as well. We already see debates in favor of blocking undesirable websites at libraries and schools. Will a vocal minority really allow the city to make such content available in homes?
Obviously the first target will be block already illegal or obscene content. I can't imagine many city councils will oppose a determined group of citizens who want to prohibit the city from "supplying" child pornography. You can already imagine the campaign ads.
So what's next? Should the city be in the business of sending regular pornography into homes? Can't children see it then? Is that how we want to use tax money?
Porn is an easy target for those who want to restrict access to content. And a city blocking such content from it's own service may not be in the business of censorship. After all, it's not like their banning the content. They're simply choosing not carry it on a municipal service.
So what's next? In many places, it's probably hate speech. Should the city be facilitating content that is racist or misogynistic?
There are extremes on both the right and left of our political landscape that would like to see certain content go away.
Many would argue that the city should block sites that enable violence -- perhaps content related to building explosives and fighting a government force. But what about sites that promote non-violent political unrest?
At this point I think it's safe to say that no city would ban a legitimate new site's content from it's service. But then who is determining the legitimacy of a new site? I think CNN and Fox would be safe from calls to ban it from the city's service, but what about Al Jazeera?
In the recent uprisings in the middle east, one of the first things dictators try to do it cut off 'net access for the people. Can we count on local governments there to not do that if pressed?
The Internet is a powerful tool because of both the good stuff and bad stuff that's on it. And I trust the users of the Internet, and, yes, many of the private party ISPs out there, to deliver a free 'net experience much more than I trust a city council trying to stand up to a vocal group of citizens barking their vocal call to, "Think of the children!"