Choosing Sides on Net Neutrality

July 12, 2009

The knotty issue of net neutrality—the principle that network providers should not discriminate in the sites or applications they provide access to—and its implications for libraries was deftly explicated by a panel of experts assembled Sunday morning by the Library Information and Technology Association. Carrie Lowe, Gregory Jackson, and Clifford Lynch Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information, opened by framing the issue in a historical context, suggesting that "While net neutrality is a relatively new phrase"—arising within the past 10 years—"at some level it's a very old idea." In the mid-1990s, when the Internet was beginning to be used by a wider audience, numerous competing services offered different types of access and widely varying pricing structure, which Lynch called "an enormous competitive market with low barriers to entry." Problems arose when modem technology reached its limits and broadband became a necessity. At that point, Lynch observed, consumers' options for access came down to two choices: your telephone carrier or your cable provider. Recently, these network providers have attempted to limit access to certain sites (often by providing only slowed-down access), for reasons that range from the commercial to the political. Lynch noted that the most prominent battleground for net neutrality is broadband access to homes, but issues regarding mobile networks are emerging and will undoubtedly become more important. Carrie Lowe of ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy offered a working definition of net neutrality from ALA's perspective: "a principle that consumers should be free to access any Internet content or services." In 2006 ALA issued a position paper on net neutrality from a library perspective (pdf file). Lowe cited two areas in which net neutrality particularly matters to libraries: At its core, net neutrality is an intellectual freedom issue; and libraries are creating a role for themselves as information providers, which makes this a bread-and-better issue for them. From a federal standpoint, most observers agree that net neutrality was the operative principle of the Internet until 2005, when the Supreme Court ruled that ISPs should be considered to provide information services rather than communication services. The Federal Communications Commission subsequently issued a deregulation order incorporating the decision that included four precepts reflecting net neutrality principles; however, Lowe said, the comments were vague and contained no enforcement measures. Lowe noted that net neutrality has been gaining prominence lately: President Obama talked about it on the campaign trail, and the broadband funding in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act stimulus package included net neutrality language, although it was relatively weak. "It's really heating up as an issue, and we have every reason to think that the FCC is going to take it up as an issue" once the new commissioners are in place, she concluded. Gregory Jackson, vice president and chief information officer at the University of Chicago, told four stories that illustrated how net neutrality issues play out in an organizational context. After Obama—a former faculty member of the university's law school—launched his presidential campaign, the school had to consider whether websites on its network, raging from student fan pages to ones containing his academic papers, could be construed as advocacy, endangering the institution's nonprofit status. (Jackson noted in passing that Obama developed his favorable view of net neutrality while he was teaching alongside fellow law school faculty member Lawrence Lessig, a prominent proponent of free speech on the Internet.) Second story: Consider a world-class library that is eager to share its online resources with a worldwide audience, but much of its licensed material is restricted to use by the university community; so the library is legally forced to block access to its holdings, violating net neutrality. Third: Video is becoming increasingly used as an instructional method, forcing a university to "tune the network" to devote more bandwidth to that medium, resulting in a lower priority for delivery of other media—which would be considered a violation to net neutrality if done by an ISP. Fourth: The movie and music industries feel they are losing control of the ability to sell their wares as consumers use peer-to-peer technology to share content. The content owners feel colleges have provided students with broadband access that encourages this behavior. For schools, the easiest solution would be to restrict peer-to-peer files; but that would be discrimination based on the nature of the content. Ultimately, said Jackson, this all raises the issue of what a network is for. The way that intellectual property gets accessed has not kept pace with the way that networks are actually used, he observed. Ultimately, Jackson concluded, "This is not about right or wrong; it's about managing risk."