The true value of the internet is being revealed in the public response to the coronavirus pandemic. In bringing people together and keeping them informed, the internet and digital culture in general are doing things few or probably none of their detractors could do.

Derided by critics obsessed with ‘screen time’ and by technophobes, the internet is turning out to be a key instrument of response to the crisis.

We saw a localised version of this during the Australian bushfires of late 2019-early 2020. Despite damage to repeater stations and a massive surge in access, it was to online sources that the public turned for the latest news, warnings and advice. Now, it is to the internet that we again turn for those same things about the coronavirus.

Not a luxury. A utility

If there is one learning that comes from our collective experience of the pandemic, it is that the internet is not a luxury. It is a utility in the same way that the water supply, electricity, gas and medical services are utilities.

What is the evidence supporting this contention?:

  • the internet provides up-to-the-minute reporting on the evolving situation in our cities and towns, countries and the rest of the world; an example is The Guardian’s rolling coverage of the pandemic
  • health authorities and governments offer warnings and advice online
  • the internet with its email, instant messaging, VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol — video services such as Skype) and social media is providing channels of communication so that families and friends can stay in touch now that many are no longer able to travel or meet because of the widespread physical isolation now in force; as commentators on social media are saying, physical isolation is not social isolation — people can stay in touch online
  • based on the Network Effect — the principle that says that the value of a network is proportional to the number of active participants — online systems, websites, social media and instant messaging move useful information through networks which forward them to other networks in much the same way that the virus itself spreads; for example, the link to Milkwood Permaculture’s Free Resources for Home-Based Living in the Time of Coronavirus was passed from network to network, exposing it to more people than would have seen it had it remained on only one network; this is how online networks operate through hyperlinks and why they are so effective in distributing information
  • health services and medical professionals provide education on protecting ourselves, our families and communities via online media
  • the internet provides publishing and distribution channels for hackers producing advisory publications, such as the Pirate Care Syllabus crew’s How to assist people in home isolation and the Coronavirus Tech Handbook
  • the internet makes available channels for citizen journalists, bloggers and others to post links to helpful material
  • the global open-source community is currently to using the internet work on making an open-source medical ventilator for free manufacture; in another example of geeks to the rescue, parts for ventilators are being fabricated by additive manufacture — 3D printing — in Italy; when the corporation owning the intellectual property for the parts threatened legal action against the printers, they disregarded it, putting public health above intellectual property and corporate profit
  • social media is the digital avenue for the numerous community self-help and support groups being established around the world
  • alerts about scams set up to cash-in on concerned and frightened people by taking advantage of the pandemic are distributed online
  • fact checking organisations reveal fake news about the coronavirus
  • to avoid going out and possibly exposing themselves to the virus, the internet is making possible a massive upsurge in online shopping for food and other goods; in the US, Amazon is reported to be putting on more than 100,000 additional people to handle orders; in Australia, both Woolworths and Coles had to suspend online food purchases to cope with the sudden boom in ordering.

Information in a time of synchronous failure

In his book, The Upside of Down, Thomas Homer-Dixon warns of the potential for synchronous failure to increase the risk of a cascading collapse of systems vital to our wellbeing.

Synchronous failure occurs when two or more vital elements of national or international infrastructure collapse. Was the health system of a nation trying to deal with the pandemic to be overwhelmed by a sudden upsurge in the number of infections, and other vital infrastructure such as communications to crash at the same time, we would have an example of synchronous failure.

Cascading collapse ocurs when one crisis triggers or feeds a subsequent crisis. In Australia, the health crisis cascaded into the hospitality and other industries, causing an economic crisis which could cascade into a recession.

Synchronous failure is the most difficult to deal with. The potential for the synchronous failure of our health system and the internet at this time would be more than disastrous. The potential for this to happen validates government expenditure in maintaining and improving vital national infrastructure, including the internet.

A utility, not a luxury

What would treating the internet not as a luxury but as a public utility entail?

For starters, government would need to regard the internet a a utility. It would need to legislate to protect and improve the internet. It would legislate net neutrality.

When it comes to schemes like the NBN broadband rollout, government would plan for the fastest, most capable and cheapest service and stop politicians interfering in the planning.

A further government initiative in concert with private internet and telecommunication companies would be reinforcing the infrastructure of the internet.

During the widespread bushfires of late 2019-early 2020, internet infrastructure such as repeater towers and antennas were damaged, limiting services to threatened communities just when they were most needed. Budgetary allocations to reinforce the infrastructure would be money well spent at a time when we face multiple threats and in making the system resilient to damage and disruption.

A further responsibility of government would be protecting internet infrastructure from malicious hackers and disinformation campaigns, such as those of the Chinese government and Russian troll factories that have interfered in the US elections and, probably, the Brexit vote and the recent UK election.

Treating the internet as a public utility should include making it widely available, reliable and accessible by all who wish to do so. That means making it as cheap as possible.

It is time to treat the internet as a utility. It is more than a sales channel for business, more than a chat shop for social media users, more than a way to stay in contact when we are far apart.

The internet is critical infrastructure in a time of serial crises and synchronous disasters. Let’s treat it as such