Internet access is "not a necessity in the day-to-day lives of Americans," according to a senior Republican Federal Communications Commission official.
And it certainly isn't a human right, despite what Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, might have you believe, according to Michael O'Rielly, one of the two Republican FCC commissioners.
"People can and do live without internet access, and many lead very successful lives," O'Rielly said in a speech Thursday. "Instead, the term 'necessity' should be reserved to those items that humans cannot live without, such as food, shelter, and water."
O'Rielly went on to say that it is "even more ludicrous to compare internet access to a basic human right."
In his speech, O'Rielly, who spent most of his career as a Republican legislative aide before joining the FCC, said that he is "not in any way trying to diminish the significance of the internet in our daily lives."
"It's surprising that O'Rielly would make such a statement, given that his job is to make communications services available to everybody in the country."
He just doesn't think the internet is a necessity for Americans. On a biological level, of course, O'Rielly is correct. The human body does not need internet access to survive.
But as the internet becomes more deeply intertwined into the everyday lives of hundreds of millions of Americans—not to mention the US economy and political system—there is a growing school of thought that suggests that internet access should be considered a basic necessity.
O'Rielly's statement, made on Thursday in a speech to a broadband industry group, was a not-so-subtle slap at the growing view among policymakers that internet access has become a basic necessity in the 21st century, like electricity and water.
That view underpins the FCC's landmark open internet policy, which, not coincidentally, O'Rielly voted against.
Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, a longtime advocate of affordable, high-speed internet access for all, took strong exception to O'Rielly's comments.
"You cannot be a fully participating citizen in this country in the 21st century without access to high speed affordable broadband," Copps told Motherboard in a phone interview. "Without it, you are basically relegated to second hand citizenship."
"He's looking at broadband access as something that would be nice to have, but is not essential," said Copps. "Let him go without internet access for a few months and see how he does."
O'Reilly's statement is particularly surprising coming from a senior FCC official, given that the FCC's mandate is, among other things, to "encourage the deployment on a reasonable and timely basis of advanced telecommunications capability to all Americans," according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
"It's surprising that O'Rielly would make such a statement, given that his job is to make communications services available to everybody in the country," said Matt Wood, policy director at DC-based public interest group Free Press.
On Friday, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler declared that "broadband is the defining infrastructure of the 21st century." He added: "We should not and will not let up on our policies that make broadband more available."
Former FCC Commissioner Copps, who leads the Media and Democracy Reform Initiative at Common Cause, said that O'Rielly "fails to appreciate" the importance of internet access in the everydays lives of American citizens.
"In this day and age, internet access is a basic right," said Copps, who is not alone in holding that view. Last year, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web called for the internet to be recognised as a basic human right.
"The web is now a public resource on which people, businesses, communities and governments depend," Berners-Lee wrote in Wired last year. "It is vital to democracy and now more critical to free expression than any other medium."