Interviews & Profiles

Internet access should be seen as a human right

A Q&A with state Sen. Kristen Gonzalez, chair of the Internet and Technology Committee.

Kristen Gonzalez, chair, state Senate Internet and Technology Committee

Kristen Gonzalez, chair, state Senate Internet and Technology Committee Kara McCurdy

Since being elected to the state Legislature last year, state Sen. Kristen Gonzalez has worked as the chair of the Internet and Technology Committee to expand broadband to all New York residents. She has pushed to pass a bill in the state Senate that would require all shelters, including those for asylum-seekers, to provide broadband so those seeking shelter can have access to information that will help them find more stability. Gonzalez experienced firsthand how life-altering access to quality internet can be when she used it at home to help her find and get into a private high school. That set her on a trajectory that saw her get jobs with the New York City Council and in the Obama administration before being elected to the state Senate.

Did the coronavirus pandemic alter the way you view the digital divide and the importance of high-quality internet access?

I don’t think it’s changed my outlook on the issue. I think internet should be a right, just like housing should be a right, health care should be a right and education should be a right. That’s something I’ve always felt deeply and have been organizing around deeply before COVID-19. But personally, with my own story, having internet at home changed my life. That happened when my mom was looking for a better school near me and Googled good schools in the area. It’s what led me to go to, not only a top school, but it politicized me. Growing up in Elmhurst, a working-class community and traveling to the Upper East Side to one of the top five independent schools in the country really showed me firsthand what two New Yorks look like and what it means to have everything you need, not only for education, but for quality of life. There are clear structural barriers for some communities versus others.

You have talked about putting more power in the hands of end users and possibly bringing internet providers under the purview of the state Public Service Commission. Why do you think that is important?

As someone who has advocated for internet for all, or for internet to be a public utility, I see a future where we don’t have to rely on these monopolies or monopolistic companies. As someone who is a democratic socialist, I don’t necessarily think the solution, or the question, is whether or not it is good for companies. That’s a symptom of a larger issue and dynamic we shouldn’t accept just as the status quo, that only these companies are providing internet. We’re expecting companies that are not accountable to the government, not accountable to the public, to be motivated to want to invest or spend their resources when they won’t see a return, which is typically not how they work. We’re expecting the market to address systemic issues. That is not what they are here to do. That’s not how it works. I think that is a perfect example of why we need to see that, if we want to bridge the digital divide and have a digitally equitable future, why we do have to start seeing internet as, not only a right that every New Yorker, regardless of location, status, economic ability, that they have a right to, but that it is also a public utility.

Some people working to get more people enrolled in subsidized internet programs have described a potential plateau where it will become harder to get more people into the programs because of issues like language barriers or a distrust of government officials trying to get them in. What do you think could be a good strategy for reaching the people who are eligible but not yet benefiting from federal programs?

One thing I have seen be successful is talking to organizations that are activist-based or co-op-based. For example there was the NYC Mesh network, or the internet co-op that wanted to help NYCHA residents in some parts of the city connect to the internet. From talking to them, I heard that because the folks who were part of those efforts were from the local community and knew a lot of their neighbors, they did not experience that barrier.