Keeping Up With... Net Neutrality

This edition of Keeping Up With… was written by John Jackson.

John Jackson is the Reference and Instruction Librarian at Whittier College, email: jjackso4@whittier.edu.

What is Net Neutrality?

Network neutrality, a term coined by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu in 2003[1], is the idea that an internet service provider (ISP) should treat all the data that travels through its network equally, regardless of the source, destination, or content of that data. In practice, this means that the data packets that make up streaming video, images from a digital archive, massively multiplayer online games, and class material in a course management system are all delivered from server to user indiscriminately, with minor modifications for network optimization. Discriminating against or blocking content from reaching an end user (e.g. slowing down certain websites like Netflix or blocking access to a service like Apple's FaceTime) violates the principle of net neutrality.

Advocates of net neutrality argue that such non-discriminatory network management practices are essential to an open, democratic internet: one that allows anyone to easily share information or develop new applications and services. Critics argue that increased regulation would discourage infrastructure development by levelling (i.e. reducing) the profitability of building a more efficient network than a competitor.

Where is Net Neutrality Now?

In a January 2014 ruling for the case Verizon v. FCC, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia stated that the Federal Communications Commission overstepped its authority by issuing the Open Internet Order 2010 and by attempting to regulate broadband providers as if they were common carriers[2]. They are, in fact, considered "information providers" according to the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and are thus subject to fewer regulations by the FCC. The Verizon v. FCC decision was viewed as a significant defeat for advocates of net neutrality.

It is important to note that while the FCC has historically been a strong supporter of net neutrality (its Open Internet Order 2010 was an aggressively pro-net neutrality document), its established purpose is to "make available so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges[3]." Net neutrality may be one path toward that goal, but its critics argue that it is not the only path. Thus, in the spring of 2014, the FCC revealed a preliminary plan, entitled "Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet," that would make it possible for companies to strike deals with ISPs for "paid prioritization" of their content, thus enabling faster-than-average access to their website or web service[4].

Implications for Academic Libraries

In the coming months, the FCC will continue to debate the efficacy and ethics of paid prioritization. It is difficult to determine exactly how an internet “fast lane” would affect institutions of higher education, but the following propositions are worth considering.

1. Paid prioritization could put academic content at a disadvantage. It is reasonable to expect that commercial websites like Netflix, Facebook, and Buzzfeed are more likely to be part of the “fast lane” than educational, non-profit, and personal websites. Access to the library catalog, local digital repositories, even the proxy server authentication could be de-prioritized in favor of streaming movies or social media websites (Netflix has already begun negotiations with Comcast and Verizon). This would introduce yet another usability frustration for students attempting to access library services and academic resources.

2. The cost of accessing prioritized online content could be passed to libraries. What would happen if, for example, Proquest or Ebsco made a deal with ISPs for paid prioritization in order to deliver their content to subscribers as quickly as possible? Would content providers absorb that cost or pass it on libraries in the form of higher subscription costs?  

3. End users would pay more for access to "the whole internet." The two implications described above assume that content creators will pay ISPs for paid prioritization. However, it is also possible that ISPs will charge end users for premium access to certain websites or services through a tiered access model (similar to the various channel packages you can purchase through your cable provider). Which websites would be part of the "basic" internet bundle and which would require a more costly subscription? This type of service stratification would further exasperate the digital divide and disadvantage rural or lower-income users.

4. The loss of net neutrality endangers the core mission of colleges and universities. Institutions of higher education depend on open and equal access to online information in order to promote research, scholarly collaboration, and access to quality information. The loss of net neutrality would add additional layers of economic influence on the structure of the web which, up until now, has been the closest thing to a global public square that our culture has ever witnessed. While it cannot be said that access to the internet has always been 100% neutral in the United States, we can confidently claim that the initial openness of the internet—and even to a certain extent its initial regulation as a common carrier due to its use of telephone cabling—was a significant factor in its widespread development and adoption.

Conclusion

By the end of July 2014, the FCC had gathered over 1.1 million comments on its "Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet" plan, an overwhelming response that brought its public website down during the final days of the commenting period. In September and October, the Commission is hosting a series of roundtable discussions to solicit additional feedback on potential policies, technological and economic aspects, and methods for maintaining an open internet. The schedule and live streaming for each roundtable will be available on the FCC website.

Notes

[1] Wu, Tim. "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination." Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law 2 (2003): 141 - 179. Accessed August 12, 2014. http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=388863.

[2] Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission, 2014 District of Columbia App. No. 11-1355. Accessed August 12, 2014.http://www.cadc.uscourts.gov/internet/opinions.nsf/3AF8B4D938CDEEA685257C6000532062/$file/11-1355-1474943.pdf.

[3] 47 U.S. Code § 151.

[4] Federal Communications Commission. "Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet." No. 14-61. Accessed August 12, 2014. https://www.fcc.gov/document/protecting-and-promoting-open-internet-nprm.

Further Reading

"7 Things You Should Know About Net Neutrality." EDUCAUSE. Accessed August 12, 2014. http://www.educause.edu/library/resources/7-things-you-should-know-about....

Heller, Margaret. “What Should Academic Librarians Know about Net Neutrality?” ACRL TechConnect Blog. Last modified June 23, 2014. http://acrl.ala.org/techconnect/?p=4396.

Madrigal, Alexis C., and Adrienne LaFrance. “Net Neutrality: A Guide to (and History Of) a Contested Idea.” The Atlantic. Last modified April 25, 2014. http://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/04/the-best-writing-o....

Vi Hart. "Net Neutrality in the US: Now What?" YouTube. Last modified May 7, 2014. http://youtu.be/NAxMyTwmu_M.

Wu, Tim and Christopher Yoo. "Keeping the Internet Neutral?: Tim Wu and Christopher Yoo Debate." Federal Communications Law Journal 59, no. 3 (2006): 575-592. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=953989.