Net Neutrality Represents Ongoing Debate about Affordable Broadband in America
By: Allyson Mower
American Libraries reports in the May 2018 issue that the ALA Council adopted the Intellectual Freedom Committee statement on net neutrality during the February midwinter meeting. I hadn’t thought of a possible connection between the net neutrality debate, libraries, and intellectual freedom so I read the statement with much interest after seeing the announcement. Kudos to ALA President Jim Neal for commissioning the statement and to the Intellectual Freedom Committee for writing it. The statement, titled “Net Neutrality: An Intellectual Freedom Issue,” is available here.
The main premise of “Net Neutrality: An Intellectual Freedom Issue” is that intellectual freedom and the full functioning of libraries in America will be impeded by allowing internet service providers (ISPs) to throttle content in pursuit of their financial and customer service interests. I have to admit that the two ideas seemed unrelated to me. Is the premise really true? How exactly does net neutrality relate to public libraries and their provision of internet access? OIF blogger Alex Supko has a post from January that provides an overview about net neutrality and is an excellent introduction. I read Alex’s post and the statement together along with this research article focused on broadband access in American public libraries. These sources helped inform some of my initial thoughts and questions.
After reading Alex’s post and after reading the statement a few times, I was able to understand that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) sets rules about the interaction between ISPs, content providers, and consumers, essentially as a private library of web-based content. ISPs such as CenturyLink and Comcast want to be able to charge money to providers who produce content that takes up significant network bandwidth–i.e. high definition videos–so that they can improve access for their customers. In an interview I heard with FCC Chairman Ajit Pai several months ago, the initial decision to allow for content discrimination was based on the desire to generate additional funds that ISPs would use to expand broadband networks to rural areas of America, but I also question this argument as detailed more in the paragraphs below.
I gathered from the statement that some online content providers could pay to achieve a faster delivery time as a way to compete with high definition video providers. Again, as a kind of private library. The statement indicates that this private-based determination of content and access levels will stifle intellectual freedom because private library users won’t have non-brokered (i.e. neutral) access to the massive array of content on the internet. This made me wonder if the same thing could be said about brick-and-mortar private libraries. Private libraries, in general, tend to be smaller and have more specialized curated content while public libraries tend to have larger, more broadly curated collections. Does the fact that someone might use a private library instead of a public library mean that his or her intellectual freedom is curtailed? I personally think there are greater threats to intellectual freedom, mental health issues and decreases in reading being two big ones.
The idea of content discrimination certainly runs counter to our professional ideals of comprehensive and equitable access to information, but letting ISPs choose whether or not content providers should pay more to deliver on a network, in my opinion, doesn’t truly impede the “full functioning of a library” unless it’s true that ISPs are the sole providers of broadband access for public libraries, but is that true? It’s not the case in Utah, where I live, as detailed below. If state’s have public broadband networks, then the idea of allowing ISPs to operate private libraries could be a non-issue and, potentially, ramp up the full functionality of a public library because private ISP customers will need to be continually informed about the nature of their internet information sources, the connection between money and distribution as well as the existence of the wider world of information on the internet–all long-standing issues that librarians tackle. The net neutrality debate represents a major information literacy moment for librarians to educate our communities about the complex ecosystem of content creation, sources, and the intent of information and its distribution. I would argue that the statement doesn’t fully discuss this aspect of the debate. I also wonder if what’s truly concerning the profession is the fact that employees of ISP companies are essentially acting as librarians but without the necessary training or professional principles to adequately and fairly serve information seekers and consumers. Is there an opportunity here for ALA to reach out to ISPs on a training collaboration?
It seems to me that the main question still centers on the decades-old issue of who acts as an internet service provider for school and public libraries in America to provide affordable, broadband internet access. Is it CenturyLink? Is it Comcast? Is it Google Fiber? To help answer my question, I called the public library in a neighboring county and asked who provided their internet service. And the answer? To my surprise, none of the above. Utah has a public broadband provider called Utah Education Network (UEN) which lays fiber in order to provide all public libraries and schools–public, private, and charter–in Utah with internet access. UEN technicians and engineers set up and maintain broadband technology at no charge to Utah libraries and schools. Their funding model is a combination of public appropriations from the State of Utah, education rate (E-Rate) funds from the FCC, and contracts for discounted circuits from telecommunication companies such as CenturyLink and Comcast. (UEN does not currently partner with Google Fiber because it is only available in the urban north portion of the state and UEN has a mandate to serve libraries and schools throughout the state.) If a new library or school calls CenturyLink or Comcast to establish internet services, those companies refer them to UEN.
I wonder if other states have something equivalent to UEN? The 2010 research article linked to above does not mention UEN nor the existence of other local, public broadband networks. The current CEO of UEN Ray Timothy says that other states are just starting to think about collaborating to establish statewide broadband access for schools and libraries. If FCC Chairman Ajit Pai truly wants affordable broadband for all areas of America, I would think he’d be familiar with entities like UEN, but he did not mention such networks in the interview linked above. UEN has been around since the early 1990s and has its roots in the 1958 public broadcasting station KUED housed at the University of Utah. Without a local network, the stated goal of affordable, broadband access for every state that Ajit Pai has articulated will be very difficult to achieve just with E-Rate, in my opinion. I see another excellent opportunity for state library associations, in partnership with ALA, to reach out to local telecommunication offices, boards of education, and academic institutions to initiate conversations about establishing robust public broadband network services similar to UEN. With more networks like UEN in place, the better public libraries and schools will be able to serve their patrons’ information needs.
Allyson Mower, MA, MLIS is Head of Scholarly Communication & Copyright at the University of Utah Marriott Library. She’s very curious about curiosity, what drives people to uncover information, and how libraries of all types create demand for knowledge. As a tenured faculty member, she researches the history of academic freedom — a kind of intellectual freedom — and the history of authorship and scholarly communication at the institution. She provides the U of U community and the general public with information, tools, and services related to both copyright and publishing. Allyson was a Library Journal Mover & Shaker in 2008, was nominated as a 2012 Society for Scholarly Publishing Emerging Leader, and served as the U of U Academic Senate President in 2014. Find her on Twitter @allysonmower.
With the repeal of Net Neutrality this week, what would be the exact repercussions for it (if any) for the consumers in terms of the access to content?
That’s a hard question to answer! Based on what I’ve read, the main repercussion is higher priced plans from video content/streaming providers. If internet service providers can now charge more to content providers who require a lot of bandwidth to deliver their product, then I imagine those charges will get passed on to consumers who purchases streaming content. But I actually don’t see access to content going away. Do you?
Thanks for reading the blog and taking the time to comment!