Like most people I’d never hear of the term [‘net neutrality’] before a few weeks ago,” says American Association of School Libraries president Gail Dickinson. “It’s a protection we enjoyed.”
Without net neutrality, also known as the open Internet, kids’ access to online resources could be negatively impacted, with commercial sites and services eclipsing other content online, Dickinson and others say.
Uninitiated librarians gained a better understanding of net neutrality last month, after a court ruled that the Federal Communication Committee (FCC) did not have the authority to impose net neutrality rules on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) such as Verizon, opening the door to an Internet where companies could pay ISPs for faster broadband delivery of their content, as reported in Library Journal and elsewhere.
Defenders of net neutrality, including librarians, fear that this decision will privilege material from organizations that can afford to pay ISPs and also thwart innovation. American Library Association (ALA) president Barbara Stripling issued a statement defending net neutrality after the ruling.
A new bill introduced last week by US Representatives Henry Waxman and Anna Eshoo (both D-CA), the Open Internet Preservation Act, would preserve net neutrality.
If the open Internet disappears, what would it mean for libraries and services to students?
“We don’t want Disney over library services,” says Lynne Bradley, director of the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Government Relations. “We don’t want entertainment to be coming up first.”
“Many schools are getting Internet access from consumer business cable companies like Time Warner. This could very easily impact them, if things weren’t written into their contracts” guaranteeing otherwise, says Christopher Harris, school library system coordinator, Genesee Valley (NY) Educational Partnership and School Library Journal “Next Big Thing” columnist.
“In the tech world there’s worry that it changes from an open aspect to a discriminatory aspect,” Harris adds, noting that a free service such as Skype, used frequently in and among schools, might be impacted, as could streaming video delivery.
“This concept of network shaping or package shaping has been around for a long time, and it’s used to effectively dedicate bandwidth to video streaming applications,” Harris says. “The question is who is able to shape the bandwidth once it leaves the district area.”
Without the principles of net neutrality in place, “kids will get different access depending on what school district they’re in,” says Frances Jacobson Harris, librarian at University Laboratory High School in Urbana, Illinois and the author of I Found It on the Internet: Coming of Age Online (ALA, 2011). “It will hurt kids in the have-not districts.”
Rather than looking ahead to what she thinks would only be “band-aid” solutions, Jacobson Harris supports those who insist that the FCC must act to redefine the Internet as a common carrier or public utility in order to preserve equal content delivery. The “common carrier” term in US communications law says that public networks like the telephone must be open to everyone at the same cost and without discrimination, she explains. So even though telephone companies are private, they can’t block calls of people who criticize them or charge them differentially.
“The FCC continues to treat ISPs as information providers rather than telecommunications providers, which are subject to common carrier rules,” Jacobson Harris says. “The only way the FCC is going to get around this is to go back and say the Internet is a public utility.” She adds, “You can no longer separate information flow from communication flow.”
“Here we have this incredible technology and through E-rate, we’re trying to get affordable connectivity,” says Bradley. “We have the capacity and all these applications. We don’t want school children to have their access to information opportunities threatened and their opportunities to share information thwarted by this pay to play.”
Dickinson says that “another parallel is the filtering law” in that the end result is unequal content delivery to students. “What we’re really doing here is taking a backhoe and a bulldozer to the digital divide,” she says. “We’re making it bigger and wider and deeper.”
The Open Internet Preservation Act, sponsored in the Senate by Senator Ed Markey (D-MA), would “protect consumers and innovation online,” according to a press release on Rep. Waxman’s site.
The bill was announced the same day that the FCC pledged $2 billion additional for high-speed Internet access for schools and libraries over the next two years and President Obama, who supports net neutrality, announced a $750 private sector commitment to support tech in schools.
In the press release, Rep. Eshoo, a ranking member of the communications and technology subcommittee, further detailed the reasons for the bill. “With the recent D.C. Circuit appeals court ruling, the open Internet as we know it suffered a blow. By striking down rules that prevented broadband providers from discriminating against or even blocking online content, the Court’s decision threatens the openness and freedom that has defined the success of the Internet,” said Eshoo. “…This bill ensures that consumers, not their Internet service provider, are in the driver’s seat when it comes to their online experience. The free and open Internet has been a pillar of our country’s growing economy, unparalleled technological innovation, and even global social movements. It is the backbone of our digital world, and I intend to keep it that way.”