A note on the blog post title: The net in "net neutrality" is actually short for network, but the phrase in its current use is centered on the internet. To speak in favor of net neutrality, email your members of Congress using this form or fax or mail a letter using resistbot.io. It takes no time at all.
Here's what is happening: Ajit Pai, a former Verizon attorney and the current Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), introduced a proposal in May to roll back FCC protections of net neutrality, and this proposal will go up for a vote among the five FCC commissioners on December 14, 2017 (Pope, 2017; Satterwhite, 2017). If it passes, this rollback will have numerous effects, but I will speak specifically to how it relates to libraries.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality refers to the provision of internet service where all data is treated equally, regardless of the source, destination, or content (Jackson, 2014). It is a method of keeping the internet open and free from the discrimination and restriction or blocking of certain users, applications, and sites.
Opponents of net neutrality believe that the FCC ruling brings too much regulation, discouraging further development and reducing profitability for providers. These opponents believe consumers will be able to demand perceived importance of neutrality through marketplace competition as consumers decide where they spend their money. However, this message is chiefly coming from large companies, many of whom have also lobbied for laws prohibiting the development of low-cost community-developed internet service. In addition, many individuals do not have much of a choice in their area: in most areas of the U.S., only a phone company and a cable company have a broadband pipe going to a home. Because of this quasi-monopoly, phone and cable companies can utilize this advantage in their provision of the internet. The rollback of the net neutrality rule would provide numerous opportunities for corporate profit and would reduce the ability of others from competing in online content and services ("Network Neutrality", 2017). Some opponents of net neutrality also claim the rollback would benefit households who use basic services, like email and Facebook, because basic plans could be more affordable because ISPs would receive revenue from large content companies (Kopf, 2017). However, supporters disagree, claiming ISPs' administrators and stockholders would take the added income and not pass those savings on to consumers (Kopf, 2017).
Supporters of net neutrality believe that it ensures a level and fair playing ground, where groups and individuals can send, share, view, and retrieve information without interference. For example, with net neutrality, internet service providers (ISPs) cannot limit or block iTunes, the Google site, or the Shazam app. It also prohibits actions like providing faster access to Hulu and Vimeo and slower access to Netflix or YouTube. Supporters also champion net neutrality because a rollback could negatively impact startups and small businesses unable to compete for prioritized positions in a new internet environment.
What is the background on net neutrality and the FCC?
In 2015, after a decade of battles and a couple of previously court-rejected FCC attempts at net neutrality rules, the FCC adopted a Net Neutrality Order which was subsequently affirmed by the federal appeals court. The rules, based on Title II of the Communications Act, provide the strongest protections possible and ensure ISPs would not restrict any legal internet traffic. Immediately after the ruling, large phone and cable companies and their lobbyists filed suit to oppose net neutrality, but the ruling has been upheld so far (Selyukh, 2016).
How does it affect libraries and, most importantly, me?
The biggest issue for libraries is the concept of paid prioritization where consumers pay for faster delivery of specific content. This goes against the concept of an open internet or a neutral web, championed by higher education and library groups, including the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, American Library Association, Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, and Modern Language Association, in this press release. Paid prioritization will likely disadvantage educational, nonprofit, personal, and other content that is not able to compete for "fast lane" prioritization of major companies. Online websites, databases, tools, and other resources could be relegated to the slow lane, or not provided in some cases, impacting healthcare, telemedicine, and mental health services. Researching, teaching, and other scholarly communication methods utilizing the internet would be impacted due to the rollback. Moreover, the costs of any attempts (by libraries or by the vendors from whom libraries purchase content) to be included in the "fast lane" will be passed on to academic, medical, and special libraries' students, members, and institutions or to the public for school and public libraries.
Misinformation is another concern arising out of the possible rollback of the Net Neutrality Order. Big data is being used to manipulate groups: Think about the political ads targeting U.S. voters via Facebook, Google, and Twitter in the recent presidential election. Platforms have been "weaponized" in order to further specific aims, and providing the opportunity for ISPs to restrict or block content from competitors may only exacerbate the problem. One example would be Verizon customers being unable to access Google in order to improve traffic to the Verizon-owned Bing search engine and then slowing access to sites providing information about competitors.
Users would also pay more for "the whole internet" (Jackson, 2014). This would further disadvantage those without the financial means to access many resources, and it could exacerbate the digital divide. Furthermore, the internet has provided opportunities for small and niche communities to come together. Rolling back net neutrality rules could risk the future opportunity for individuals to come together with those like them in online spaces.
What can I do?
Tim Berners-Lee, the computer scientist who invented and released the World Wide Web, said it is meant to be an "open platform that allows anyone to share information, access opportunities, and collaborate across geographical boundaries." According to Berners-Lee, ISPs have a history of actions that do not align with net neutrality ideals, including how Apple blocked the use of Skype from iPhones in order to profit from users having to make more calls. He, along with many other net neutrality supporters, is in Washington D.C., urging lawmakers to reconsider the rollback (Solon, 2017).
Since most of us cannot make it to Washington D.C., here's what you can do. Supporters of libraries can email their members of Congress using this form or fax or mail a letter using resistbot.io.
Jackson, J. (Aug 19, 2014). Keeping up with... net neutrality. American Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/acrl/publications/keeping_up_with/net_neutrality
Kopf, D. (Nov 29, 2017). The economic case that net neutrality was always fundamentally bad for the internet. Retrieved from https://qz.com/1139278/net-neutrality-the-economic-case-against-a-free-i...
Network Neutrality. (June 21, 2017). American Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.ala.org/advocacy/telecom/netneutrality
Pope, C. (Nov 29, 2017). Take action to support net neutrality protections. Medical Library Association. Retrieved from http://www.mlanet.org/blog/take-action-to-support-net-neutrality-protect...
Satterwhite, E. (Nov 21, 2017). Net neutrality at the end of 2017: What libraries need to know. District Dispatch. Retrieved from http://www.districtdispatch.org/2017/11/net-neutrality-end-2017-librarie...
Selyukh, A. (Jun 14, 2016). U.S. appeals court upholds net neutrality rules in full. National Public Radio.Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2016/06/14/471286113/u-s-appeals...
Solon, O. (Nov 15, 2017). Tim Berners-Lee on the future of the web: 'The system is failing.' The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/technology/2017/nov/15/tim-berners-lee-world...