Net Neutrality

rubin_fullsize_rgbIn Chapter 8 of Foundations of Library and Information Science, Richard Rubin discusses information policy issues. One of the more prescient issues discussed is that of Internet (Network) Neutrality. Net neutrality is basically the extension of the Intellectual Freedom argument to the realm of the Internet. It is the open design principle of the Internet, and it encourages freedom of speech, as well as unhindered access to information and entertainment. Technically speaking, net neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate or control the speed of Internet traffic. In other words, all Internet companies or domains across the Web should be able to enjoy unhindered access to their web content. We are not talking explicitly about blocking sites or filtering, though these are extreme possibilities. We are discussing the unjust regulation of the Internet in the form of slowing down or accelerating “data” packets” to websites.

Network neutrality is an important issue for librarians because of the many digital services the library provides. In addition to the services which Rubin mentioned at the beginning of this chapter, the library offers free Internet to its patrons. In fact, free access to the Internet through a library network has become the most popular feature of the contemporary library. If ISPs controlled access to the Internet, then the free flow of ideas would be inhibited if not outright restricted to all citizens. This would have a negative impact on the free exchange of ideas, public discourse, and creative expression.

Because this issue so obviously impacts libraries, the American Library Association issued a statement on network neutrality in 2006 called the Resolution Affirming Network Neutrality. This was an attempt to safeguard the rights of library users in searching for information online, ensuring that they get free and equitable access. Importantly, the statement also called for protection from information monopolized by commercial interests.

Commercialization is a scary prospect. A noncommercial network is crucial to upholding the democratic values of the Web. But the commercial or “tiered access” model puts small companies and public institutions, such as libraries, at risk of having to deal with reduced Internet speeds or worse.

Tim Wu, Professor of Law at Columbia University, is credited with coining the term net neutrality. Wu believes many popular content providers and Web applications would not exist without net neutrality. (Can you imagine a world without Netflix? I can’t). The Obama Administration did well to safeguard democratic access to the Web, but again we are seeing businesses trying to merge and monopolize informational content. Wu talked about the possibility of a large-scale media collapse, similar to the financial crisis of 2008. In this scenario, Internet companies that go bust will disappear, and big corporate entities like AT&T or Google will approve content for everybody. The worse-case scenario is that the Internet might turn into something akin to a vacation package, in which consumers pay an exorbitant fee to access information. These are scary possibilities which should compel individuals to campaign for network neutrality.