Network Neutrality

Network Neutrality (or "net" neutrality) is the concept of online non-discrimination. It is the principle that consumers/citizens should be free to get access to - or to provide - the Internet content and services they wish, and that consumer access should not be regulated based on the nature or source of that content or service. Information providers - which may be websites, online services, etc., and who may be affiliated with traditional commercial enterprises but who also may be individual citizens, libraries, schools, or nonprofit entities - should have essentially the same quality of access to distribute their offerings. "Pipe" owners (carriers) should not be allowed to charge some information providers more money for the same pipes, or establish exclusive deals that relegate everyone else (including small noncommercial or startup entities) to an Internet "slow lane." This principle should hold true even when a broadband provider is providing Internet carriage to a competitor.

Why is Net Neutrality an issue?

Net neutrality was a founding principle of the Internet. It is a principle incorporates both the “common carrier” laws that have long governed the phone lines used for both voice telephony and dial up access. Now, many consumers receive broadband service over other technologies (cable, DSL) that are not subject to the same common-carriage requirements. While these technologies are unquestionably superior to dial-up, the lack of enforceable net neutrality principles concerns us. Cable and DSL companies are planning to engage in “bit discrimination” by providing faster connections to websites and services that pay a premium, or by preferring their own business partners when delivering content. As the Internet moves forward, is it really wise to leave net neutrality behind?

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Why does Net Neutrality matter to libraries?

The American Library Association is a strong advocate for intellectual freedom, which is the “right of all peoples to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” Intellectual freedom is critical to our democracy, because we rely on people’s ability to inform themselves. The Internet connects people of diverse geographical, political, or ideological origins, greatly enhancing everyone’s ability to share and to inform both themselves and others.

Our libraries’ longstanding commitment to freedom of expression in the realm of content is well-known; in the context of the net neutrality debate, however, we believe it is equally important to stress that the freedom of libraries and librarians to provide innovative new kinds of information services will be central to the growth and development of our democratic culture. A world in which librarians and other noncommercial enterprises are of necessity limited to the Internet’s “slow lanes” while high-definition movies can obtain preferential treatment seems to us to be overlooking a central priority for a democratic society – the necessity of enabling educators, librarians, and, in fact, all citizens to inform themselves and each other just as much as the major commercial and media interests can inform them.

The ability of the Internet to spread and share ideas is only getting better. With modern technology, individuals and small groups can produce rich audio and video resources that used to be the exclusive domain of large companies. We must work to ensure that these resources are not relegated to second-class delivery on the Internet – or else the intellectual freedoms fostered by the Internet will be constrained.

One application that libraries are especially invested in is distance learning. Classes offered using audio and video streamed over the Internet have huge potential to bring expert teachers into the homes of students around the globe.

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The Issue of Regulation vs. Competition

Some of the “pipe” owners argue that net neutrality is unnecessary regulation that will stifle competition and slow deployment of broadband technologies. But the truth is there is already only a little competition between broadband providers. In most parts of the U.S., there are at most two companies that provide a broadband pipe to your home: a telephone company and a cable company. Both of these industries are already regulated because they are natural monopolies: once a cable is laid to your house, there really is no rational, non-wasteful reason to lay another cable to your house, since you only need one at a time; therefore, most communities only allow one cable or telephone company to provide service to an area, and then regulate that company so to prevent abuse of the state-granted monopoly. Thus, we don’t allow phone companies to charge exorbitant amounts for local service; nor do we permit a cable company to avoid providing service to poor neighborhoods.

Contrast the quasi-monopoly on broadband pipes with the intensely competitive market of web content and services. There are millions of websites out there and countless hours of video and audio, all competing for your time, and sometimes your money.

With the advent of broadband connections, the telecom and cable companies have found a new way to exploit their state-granted monopoly: leverage it into a market advantage in Internet services and content. This would harm competition in the dynamic, innovative content and services industry without solving the lack of real competition in the broadband access market.

In contrast, net neutrality will encourage competition in online content and services to stay strong. By keeping broadband providers from raising artificial price barriers to competition, net neutrality will preserve the egalitarian bit-blind principles that have made the Internet the most competitive market in history.

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Conclusion

The American Library Association supports Net Neutrality legislation that preserves the competitive online markets for content and services. Bandwidth and access should be offered on equal terms to all willing to pay. Otherwise, broadband providers will be free to leverage their quasi-monopolies into lucrative but market-distorting agreements. The vitality of voices on the Internet is critical to the intellectual freedom that libraries around the world are trying to protect and promote. Laws that preserve Net Neutrality are the best way to preserve a vibrant diversity of viewpoints into the foreseeable future.

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Where can I find out more?

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