November 19, 2017

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Net Neutrality: Why You Should Care About the FCC Vote

FCC Takes Another Swing at Net Neutrality While Netflix Agrees To Pay for Faster StreamingThe Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will hold a vote on February 26 on whether to reclassify Internet broadband services as a public utility under Title II of the Communications Act. Under Title II, the FCC will be able to regulate the Internet—and therefore Internet service providers (ISP)—as a public utility, like telephone service and electricity, enabling the FCC to champion the cause of “net neutrality,” or equity across the Internet.

“The proposed rules would ban paid prioritization in which companies pay for faster access (commonly referred to as “fast lanes”) to consumers,” reports circa. “The rules would also ban throttling [the intentional slowing down of the Internet by service providers]…”

The principle of net neutrality is tossed around but not necessarily understood. And for schools and libraries, both providers of Internet access, it’s a terribly important issue.

What is net neutrality?

EH_150224_NetNeutralityNet neutrality is the principle of maintaining a free and open Internet, so that the access provider, such as Verizon or Comcast, must provide the user the same quality of service and speed across the board to all websites. In the past, it’s been possible for ISPs to “favor” delivery of content to companies, such as Netflix or Amazon, which are able to pay additional fees for the delivery of faster and better service to their users.

Under net neutrality, such favoritism in exchange for money paid would be banished. ISPs would be required to make all legal content and applications available on an equal basis, so the user gets the same quality delivery whether connecting to government websites, movie streaming and game websites, news services, or the bank, according to the FCC Fact Sheet.

What’s the deal with the FCC vote?

On January 14, 2014, a federal court ruled that the FCC was overreaching its authority in trying to regulate the Internet as a utility when it had already been defined by the FCC as an information service, says Verizon v. the Federal Communications Commission.

Now, the FCC is proposing to reclassify Internet service as a utility service, and the new rules will treat ISPs similarly to other public utility providers. As public utility providers, ISPs wouldn’t be able to charge differentially based on content or intentionally slow down delivery of content in order to favor prioritized content. The FCC received an unprecedented four million comments from the public during a four month fact-finding period that began in May 2014, including one from President Obama, who strongly stated his position supporting a free and open Internet with no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency, and no paid prioritization. During the comment period, people made it abundantly clear that they view broadband Internet access as a necessity, a utility akin to electricity and telephone service.

So what’s not to like? Opponents of net neutrality fear vastly reduced opportunities for investment, creativity, and innovation. By blocking fast lanes and other potential forms of revenue, ISPs argue the new rules will limit financial growth and their ability to sustain infrastructure improvements and develop new technologies. ISPs are also greatly concerned that the new rules would result in rate regulation, new taxes and fees, and mountains of paperwork.

Proponents of net neutrality say that the new rules would level the playing field. At present, a few large companies, including Comcast and AT&T, have been able to amass a monopoly-like lock on the ISP industry. These giants are also well-known for garnering low consumer satisfaction ratings and may be the only ones to benefit from the status quo. Without net neutrality, they have the means to control the flow of information, giving priority to some types of content while degrading or throttling service for other types that can’t pay for prioritized treatment.

What is the impact OF NET NEUTRALITY on libraries?

A library’s core mission is to provide the public with equitable access to information, regardless of format. In today’s world, public libraries are leading providers of high speed access to the Internet, particularly for those without access to broadband services at home. The prevailing debate doesn’t really address the fate of public and non-profit institutions. Net neutrality will enforce that libraries aren’t relegated to dispensing second-class delivery of Internet services.

For school libraries, the stakes may be even higher. The vast majority of American schools rely on federal E-Rate funding, which mandates the installation of Internet filtering software to meet requirements of the Children’s Internet Protection Act. Internet service is often already seriously compromised by filtering practices that overreach actual requirements of the law. Faced with an Internet experience that is characterized by crawling speeds and redacted content, today’s students are finding schools (and school libraries) hopelessly irrelevant. And with so much content blocked or throttled, students can’t be taught to critically assess what they find online, according to the American Library Association (ALA) report “Fencing Out Knowledge: Impacts of the Children’s Internet Protection Act 10 Years Later.”

Another threat comes in the form of big package education publishers who offer self-contained, “school safe” content. In a world without net neutrality, big corporate education giants are likely to partner with big corporate ISPs to deliver this “walled garden” content at high speeds. Schools will be forced to pay extra if they want their students to be able to engage with content in a timely way. High quality free content that isn’t part of the package, such as the Library of Congress American Memory Collections, could languish in the realm of the throttled.

The ALA stands squarely on the side of net neutrality. Last July, the organization joined ten other education and library organizations in filing joint public comments with the FCC. Courtney Young, ALA president, emphasized the role of America’s libraries in collecting, creating, and disseminating essential information to the public over the Internet and in enabling users to create and distribute their own digital content and applications.

Come February 26, progress toward leveling the information playing field will be thwarted or born.


Frances Jacobson Harris is a retired school librarian who’d worked at the University Laboratory High School in Urbana, IL, for 27 years and is the author of “I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online,” American Library Association, 2011

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Comments

  1. Well said! BTW I love your book. Had to read it in library school.

    • Frances Jacobson Harris says:

      Thanks on both counts, Scott! Pretty cool to see “love” and “had to” juxtaposed like that.