Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Maine Governor tells concerned rural teenager to "read a book" when asked to support net neutrality.

Perhaps the greatest thing about American democracy is the ability to write our lawmakers and representatives and make our voices heard. We send our letters off, hoping that they will be read and considered by their recipient. We also hope for a response, which often comes in the form of a canned letter written by a staffer. What happens however when the elected official sends a personalized response? As a Camden, Maine teenager learned, it's not always a positive experience. 

Governor Paul LePage has a reputation for being a bit of a firebrand, known for leaving a vulgar voicemail for a lawmaker, insinuating that racial minorities are responsible for the drug epidemic, and other things, LePage is not known for self-censorship or obeying etiquette norms. During the recent debate on net neutrality, 16 year old Hope Osgood decided to write the governor to express her views on the subject. LePage returned a copy of the letter and wrote, "Hope! Pick up a book and read!" and signed it "Governor." 

There is of course little context behind LePage's comments and we don't know what he actually meant by them. It is possible that he was trying to minimize the role of the internet in modern day education by insinuating that Osgood would be just as well to read a book. As someone who grew up in a rural community, without broadband, and who had to rely on an underfunded public library for research while in high school, I can tell you from firsthand experience that the internet is a great equalizer in regards to access to information. As Osgood herself notes in the linked article, many of the books in her classrooms are old, outdated, and damaged. If the governor had intended to tell Osgood that the internet was not as important as she thinks because she could "pick up a book and read" then he appears to have missed the target. 

Hidden in the background of this entire situation is the question of rural broadband and its expansion in Maine. With more and more resources becoming available online, including a seemingly endless supply of academic journals, access to the internet is essential for honing your skills as a researcher and accessing a wealth of knowledge. Denying rural students this resource is detrimental to their intellectual growth and development. As the ability to utilize online resources becomes a necessity in the modern workplace, it also puts them as an economic disadvantage. 

A 2015 report found that 80% of Mainers lacked access to download and upload speeds of at least 10Mbps. As LePage said at the time of this report's issuance, "[h]igh-speed Internet is critical to moving Maine forward. It has become increasingly evident that many industries simply cannot prosper in our state without this service ... limited or very basic Internet service can be a barrier to attracting business to our state or moving our existing employers into a digital economy." Governor LePage's office even said that he spoke to President Trump about expanding broadband into rural areas during a visit to Washington in April of last year.

However, LePage has typically favored solutions that lean heavily on the private sector and that require minimal to no funding from the state government. In June 2015, LePage vetoed a bill that would have created a fund (with an initial appropriation of $500) to facilitate the creation of open-source municipal fiber networks in rural Maine. The bill had passed with strong support in the State Senate and with unanimous support in the State House. In his veto letter, LePage noted that he had "attended a launch event for a company whose goal is to ultimately deliver this type of service to 90 percent of Maine by the end of the year. That is just one company. It should come as no surprise; the private sector is already way ahead of Augusta politicians in identifying a business opportunity and implementing a strategy to deliver a needed product and service." By the end of 2015, 90% of Maine did not have access to broadband internet.

Governor LePage would be well-served to consider the words of young people like Ms. Osgood. Minimizing the role of the internet in the modern world is dangerous and a severe disservice to rural residents. As Philip Alston's recent report for the United Nations (see my post on it here) noted, governments, even in predominantly rural states, seem to be lagging behind on addressing this issue. As I have noted in this space many times, there is a huge resource gap between urban and rural communities and that will only continue to get worse as lawmakers refuse to adequately address the lack of access to broadband in rural communities.

Perhaps Governor LePage and his ideological compatriots would also be well-served to consider how President Franklin Roosevelt handled a situation in which an essential utility was not being adequately provided by the private sector.......

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