Now is the time to find, create, or build the will to secure net neutrality, instilling in policy the equitable access to the Internet we have come to rely on as a society. Last month’s ruling against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) denied the body’s authority to regulate Internet service providers (ISPs) as if they were common carriers without designating them as such. The decision releases ISPs to do as they please in developing commercial interests and threatens to allow the usurpation of the essential public resource the Internet has become.
To date, because of net neutrality, the Internet has been a level playing field in terms of content. While some consumers paid for faster access than others, the speed at which each downloaded or uploaded data was the same, regardless of what or whose content they were exchanging. Now, if the ruling is upheld, as LJ’s Ian Chant describes, we face the distinct possibility of life with what is referred to as a “two-tier Internet”—where content providers with more resources could make deals for their information to be accessible at faster speeds, while those with less funding, unable to compete, would be at the mercy of ISPs’ ability or desire to squeak through the packets of data carrying their communications. It is even possible that ISPs would slow access to content based on its point of view.
This should not be allowed to happen. Too much is at stake.
The American Library Association (ALA) was swift to issue a statement against the decision. Soon after, ALA president Barbara Stripling also addressed the tech world. Writing in Wired (“Why Net Neutrality’s Demise Hurts the Poor Most”), she framed the problem in terms of equity and linked that to education, countering Verizon’s claim that the ruling would speed innovation:
[W]ith education comes innovation. While we tend to glorify industrial-park incubators and think-tanks, the fact is that many of the innovative services we use today were created by entrepreneurs who had a fair chance to compete for web traffic. By enabling Internet service providers to limit that access, we are essentially saying that only the privileged can continue to innovate. Meanwhile, small content creators, such as bloggers and grassroots educators, would face challenges from ISPs placing restrictions on information traveling over their networks.
The downside Stripling posits is not yet a reality. But even the threat of such limitations should raise the hackles of librarians and educators. Losing net neutrality threatens to hamstring the delivery of e-services from all types of libraries. Imagine needing to negotiate with your ISP to let patrons tap your digital offerings at competitive speeds.
Public libraries, recognizing the Internet’s role as a primary mechanism for exchanging ideas, have put resources and energy into realizing the ambitious goal of equitable access to the Internet. This mission-driven work points to the Internet as a public good. It is not just for recreation and commerce but a tool increasingly relied upon by government and business to communicate with their constituents and customers. People need it to get many basic things done.
The ruling has sparked much examination of what is at risk if we compromise the Internet. If we lose this moment and allow a two-tiered Internet to develop, we may never be able to go back. The web’s organic complexity is not something we can re-create from scratch. Instead, we as a people should defend its integrity by demanding that our policymakers protect equitable use of it for the common good.
There is hope. If the FCC was to define ISPs as telecommunications companies, it would have the authority to make them adhere to the common carrier rules followed by the likes of phone companies. The federal authority, LJ’s Chant tells me, can change the definition, but there may be a lack of will to do so as it has not been done to date.
Well, the time is now. As we went to press, a whitehouse.gov petition calling on President Obama to direct the FCC to reclassify ISPs as common carriers had over half the signatures needed to require a response from the administration. It’s likely to take more advocacy than that to alter the current course, so we must raise awareness of what could be lost and help those in charge see the wisdom in protecting the vast resource we now have. Net neutrality is a principle worth defending and, ultimately, anchoring in policy for today and future generations.