Should the Internet Be Free?

If you were following along with me yesterday on Facebook or Instagram, then you might already know that I got the Photon 4G mobile hotspot from FreedomPop. Backed by one of the co-founders of Skype, FreedomPop pushes the notion that the Internet is a right and not a privilege.

You see, unlike all of the major wireless providers in the United States, FreedomPop is willing to provide you with wireless 4G service for free; you just have to put down a security deposit for the mobile hotspot device (they also have a USB dongle and an iPod touch sleeve).

Bringing the Cost to Zero

Yes, the free service is limited to just 500MB of data each month and coverage is a little spotty (they use the WiMAX network from Clear, but have signed a deal to use Sprint’s LTE next year), but it is free . This post isn’t really meant to be a review of FreedomPop–I’ll do that at a later time–but this kind of game-changing philosophy really got me thinking. Should Internet access be free? Is it really a basic human right, or is it still one of these first world luxuries and privileges, like network television and indoor plumbing?

You might remember during the earlier days of the Internet when we all paid for dial-up access, but there was a company called NetZero that gave you free home Internet. You just had to put up with ads. NetZero has since resurfaced and is offering a similar product as FreedomPop for mobile Internet access.

Offering Location Freedom

Yes, I know that you can go to the public library or certain government buildings and get free Internet access. You can go to a coffee shop or shopping mall for access too, but these are bound to physical locations. Mobile Internet frees you from that limitation (when it works). Remember that major wireless companies are charging $50 or more a month for that kind of access.

But is your ability to get online and post pictures of your sleepy cat really a right? I’m not so sure.

Expecting More Free Stuff?

And what about all the things that have become free on the Internet? Want a 10GB+ email inbox? You’ve got it. Want a free website? Tumblr and can do that. Want to make a voice or video call to someone halfway around the world? Skype has you covered. YouTube, Facebook, Wikipedia… the list goes on. They may have some sort of premium model or upgrade, but there is something there for free. Going back to FreedomPop, that’s true too. They have bigger data buckets that you can pay for, but the basic 500MB plan is free. If all these websites started charging everybody, we’d be outraged.

I realize I could open a big can of ethical, philosophical and political worms, but we really have to think about what should and should not be a basic human right. Clean running water? A general sense of safety? Basic health care? Electricity? Affordable or even free and omnipresent access to the Internet?

What do you think? And do you think companies like NetZero and FreedomPop are really going to change the way we think about the wireless industry?

UPDATE: My review of the FreedomPop Photon 4G is up on Mobile Magazine. It’s a good idea in theory, but it needs help with coverage and execution.