In an editorial in the November 2014 MIT Technology Review, the writer concluded that “the open Internet is in danger. But not from lack of neutrality—from the prospect of FCC regulating it like a 20th–century utility.” The article proceeded to provide a brief commentary on “network neutrality.” This refers to the concept that service providers should not block data from particular websites, charge content providers for delivering content, or set paid “fast lanes” i.e. charging extra to some people for faster services while others get stuck in “slow lanes.”
Currently in my home state, there is great discussion about a requested utility rate hike of 20%. Thinking about this possibility in light of the Internet regulation debate gave me pause. Utilities are regulated in my state and the rate hike is currently being “discussed and evaluated,” though I have heard no discussion that a rate increase will not occur. It is simply a question of how much.
In the case of heat and electricity, the consumer is truly over a barrel. But what about Internet? Despite how many of us feel, Internet access is not a fundamental need. If a regulated utility can request a 20% increase after a few years of bad snow storms, what might be considered a legitimate regulated increase for Internet? Of course, there are dangers on the other side of the coin as well. If there is no regulation, then does the situation become massively out of control leaving Internet service to only the wealthy and elite?
The issue has large implications for us in Libraryland. With our current political climate suggesting that libraries could/should go the way of the dodo, there is little incentive for providers to ensure libraries are in the “fast lane.” Further, we already see in libraries the same socioeconomic divide between the haves and the have-nots. Wealthy communities have large libraries with makerspaces, robotics, etc. while smaller libraries in less affluent communities exist more as reading rooms. If this divide is accepted among Internet service as well, the implications and effects of such divide will surely trickle down to the individual level.
In 2010, the FCC ruled that ISPs could not block or delay content and none would be allowed to pay for priority delivery. In effect, it ruled for status quo. But others question the whole concept. They suggest that the notion of network neutrality is nothing more than an illusion; Internet operators have always and still discriminate in what goes to where and how fast it gets there. In this context too, I think about my own Internet provider options, where I can pay more for higher speeds. I don’t understand how this is not in contradiction to the FCC ruling.
I am left to wonder if the issue of network neutrality for libraries will become akin to issues of censorship in libraries. No library engages in “censorship.” Yet every day we make collection decisions based on various criteria. Some of that criterion is cost in relation to our budgets. For most of us, our patrons have limited access, and our access is often a function of the socioeconomic status of our community. Regulation or no regulation—what does it mean for us?