It might seem like yet another excessive giveaway from a Scandinavian social welfare state. Last week, Finland became the first country in the world to make broadband Internet access a legal right, placing the ability to get online alongside other entitlements like unemployment benefits and health care. As of last Thursday, every Finnish citizen is entitled to a one megabit-per-second Internet connection.
"Internet services are no longer just for entertainment," the country's communication minister told the BBC. Indeed, in a world where more and more people get their information online, Web access has become a precondition for an informed citizenry. Guaranteeing this access is not only necessary for societies seeking to advance technologically, but for any country with democratic aspirations.
Prior to enshrining Internet access as a legal right, Finland had already done an impressive job getting its citizens online. Some 96 percent of the population already has Web access, leaving a mere 4,000 households - most of them located in the country's remote, Arctic outskirts - in need of a hookup. Given these statistics, passing such legislation looks more like a formality than a daring, expensive enterprise. The significance of Finland's undertaking, however, is not reflected in its cost or complexity, but in the message it sends: In the 21st century, the citizens of a democratic nation must be equipped with the tools to educate themselves about what is happening not only in their local communities, but around the world.
Once derided as a venue merely for chat rooms, movie downloads and pornography, the Internet has become a global battleground between those fighting to expand human freedom and those trying to constrict it. Compare Finland's decision with the actions of authoritarian nations, which devote massive amounts of money and resources to preventing their citizens from enjoying unrestricted Internet access. China blocks most external news sites and imprisons more people for violating draconian Internet speech laws than any other country in the world. Recognizing the power of the Web, the regime actively promotes disinformation online - deploying tens of thousands of Internet propagandists to patrol websites and post anonymous comments praising the Communist authorities.
Across the Muslim world, regimes imprison individuals for criticizing the government or writing heterodox articles about Islam or Israel. CyberDissidents, an American organization committed to defending those who "continue the noble tradition of political dissent using information communication technology," tracks these crackdowns, which occur with disturbing regularity. One specific case it has trumpeted is that of Egyptian university student Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, who has been in prison since 2006 for referring to President Hosni Mubarak as a dictator. A steady stream of worldwide demonstrations and petitions have yet to convince the Egyptian government to release him.
On top of hindering Internet access, authoritarian powers also use the Web to repress. The tiny Baltic nation of Estonia - where not long ago less than half of the population actually had a phone line - made Internet access a state priority in 2000 under the enthusiastically free-market leadership of President Mart Laar. In an ironic twist, however, the country's widespread Internet usage (nearly the entire populace does its banking online ) became a liability in 2007 when Russia, engaged in a diplomatic row with the former Soviet republic, allegedly launched a wave of cyber attacks on government, newspaper and business websites.
While advocating Internet access in closed societies, one must also acknowledge its limits in promoting freedom. Much has been written about the importance of Twitter in helping Iran's Green Movement to coordinate protests in the wake of the country's stolen election in June of last year. But in fact Twitter's role has been highly exaggerated. Its format, which lacks any kind of monitoring, easily allows rumors to spread - like posts that falsely warned of snipers at major demonstrations to discourage people from attending. Over a year later, the Iranian regime remains in place, continues to jail and torture dissidents, and proceeds apace with its nuclear program. Twitter was unable to stop it. While Web access in Iran may be severely restrained, even if the Iranian people were able to communicate more freely with one another online, that alone would not be enough to overthrow their oppressive government.
All in all, the one possessing the guns matters more than the one with the Internet jack. Hyping Twitter's supposed aid to the Iranian opposition makes armchair activists in the West feel like heroes more than anything else. When it comes to dealing with rogue regimes, preaching the unparalleled virtues of the Internet and social networking sites becomes an excuse for avoiding more effective actions - whether they be sanctions, covert operations or military force.
Regardless, if you give people a taste of freedom, they will invariably want more of it. And today, the Internet - with all of its chaotic qualities - represents freedom. A BBC poll conducted earlier this year found that nearly 80 percent of people around the world believe access to the Web should be a fundamental right. Perhaps because authoritarians are so afraid of the Internet's power, most people view information technology as something to be welcomed. Governments should heed the call and follow Finland.
James Kirchick is writer-at-large for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and a contributing editor to The New Republic.