Treating Knowledge as a Utility: One Suggestion for Rethinking Human Development

There are things that are seen as so essential for human development that, in many countries, they are not treated as normal markets.

Electricity, water, transportation – all are fundamental to ensuring a basic standard of living. As such, governments intervene to ensure that, where private companies are involved, they do not act in a way that leads to populations being cut off, or disadvantaged.

This is because even when providing (full) service to someone is not profitable for the company, there is a recognised wider interest in doing so. This can be both on the grounds of equity (these are basic rights that all should enjoy), and on the basis that this would be an investment (without these services, people have fewer chances of improving their situation). In these situations, we can talk about these services being ‘utilities’.

Much of the debate around net neutrality, in particular in the United States, has focused on this point – of whether the internet should be treated as a ‘utility’, or whether internet service providers should be allowed to influence what people receive on their computers and how. Similarly, there has been debate about the strength of obligations on telecommunications companies to serve people in rural areas, or those who are less wealthy.

Those who argue for the internet as a ‘utility’ underline both that steps should be taken to guarantee good quality internet for all, and that this should not be subject to activities like ‘paid prioritisation’. See IFLA’s own net neutrality statement for more.

With it more and more common for internet access to be described as a human right (including, most recently, by the President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen), there is hope that we are moving towards a world where governments take the necessary regulatory and financial steps to bring everyone online.

However, the internet is not just about cables and masts, it is also about content. As a post last week suggested, thinking holistically about what makes for a complete connectivity infrastructure means that we need to think more broadly.

Can we then think about knowledge and information in the same way as we think about electricity, water, or bus services, as a utility? Especially today, on International Science Day, which this year is focused on Rethinking Human Development, this seems relevant, given the importance of knowledge information for development at all levels.

This blog sets out three characteristics that could support such a way of thinking about information.

 

Clearly, knowledge and information – and access to it – are a recognised human right, as set out in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and backed up in Article 27: Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

This right has been echoed in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, whose target 16.10 underlines the importance of access to information as a key cross-cutting driver of development. Crucially, other SDG targets do the same, focusing on areas such as health, agriculture, and research.

 

Secondly, it seems fair to say that while there definitely is a role for private companies here, the market alone will not meet all the potential demand. Drawing on copyright protections, companies will naturally (and entirely justifiably) seek to maximise returns, and indeed when they have shareholders, be legally obliged to do so.

While to some extent, higher sales mean higher revenues, it is also the case that it will often be more profitable to sell few units with a higher mark-up than lots of units with almost none, even if this leaves some excluded.

This applies as much for basic access, as for secondary markets such as licensing for education, or research purposes. Similarly, companies cannot be expected to bear in mind all of the wider benefits of activities such as preservation.

While it certainly may be possible to create a market here, this is likely to be highly dysfunctional, leaving many excluded and harming the overall public interest. In short, intervention is required to ensure that copyright does not lead to exclusion.

 

Thirdly, we also have a precedent of creating means for people who wouldn’t otherwise have access to knowledge and information to do so – namely libraries. Our institutions do not just provide this access, but also carry out those activities that are not appropriate for market solutions.

Libraries can, in effect, be seen as a form of universal service supported by governments at different levels, in order to ensure that something as vital as information does not become a minority good, but can rather help all to flourish.

Of course, in a digital world, there is a need to ensure that this role can continue to be fulfilled.

To some extent, it is done so by the drive towards open access and open science. These help ensure that it is not only those attached to major institutions who can benefit from the fruits of research, but everyone with internet access.

However, outside of the scholarly journal sector, the dominant business model remains is to charge for access. In this case, we need institutions like libraries to be able to buy and give access to works, without facing restrictions which would in effect leave library users less informed than others.

 

As we think about how we measure human development, and in particular, how we measure the degree to which everyone has access to the services and possibilities they need – and deserve – in order to thrive, knowledge and information should be at the heart of our concerns.

In particular, with International Science Day this year coinciding with the Internet Governance Forum, there is an opportunity to try and apply emerging thinking about how we provide connectivity to the broader question of how we provide access to information.

Seeing knowledge and information as a utility – and being ready to act accordingly to ensure that everyone has access – offers one potential way forwards.

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