What in the world is net neutrality, anyway?

What was going on yesterday?

You may have noticed that several websites around the Internet were acting strangely earlier this week. Some of the most popular sites – Amazon, Facebook, and Google, to name a few – were promoting something called net neutrality. It’s not a very user-friendly term, and you wouldn’t be crazy to think it had more to do with banking than your favorite websites. In reality, it’s an idea that web companies, internet service providers, and the Federal Communications Commission have been fighting over for the past few years. Before I dig into the what’s, how’s and why’s of net neutrality, let’s clear up a few things.

First, does it have anything to do with you? Yes, and I’ll explain why later. Second, does it have anything to do with education? Yes, and I’ll get to that, too. Finally, am I writing this blog post to tell you what to think about net neutrality? Absolutely not. Instead of telling you how to think, I’ll try to shed some light on both sides of the issue.

Just what is net neutrality?

So, to start with the basics, how do we define net neutrality? One dictionary frames it as “the idea, principle, or requirement that internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination.” That more or less describes how the internet has always worked. You pay your internet provider one monthly fee, and in turn you get access to the whole internet. Contrast that with, say, the world of cable TV. A base fee gives you a few basic channels. If you want other channels, you can buy add-on packages, like a sports package or a movies package. Imagine if your internet service worked that way. One monthly fee would give you fast, unlimited access to some “basic” websites, like Google and Wikipedia. But your ISP might then charge you an additional fee if you want access to social media — $20 per month for unlimited access to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Want to listen to Spotify or watch YouTube? For an extra $15, you can do that with the “entertainment” package.

To be clear, internet providers aren’t really doing this right now. That’s largely because we’ve always had a system of net neutrality. But some providers appear to be testing the waters. In 2015 and 2016, several cellular internet providers introduced so-called “zero-rating” policies that allowed customers to stream specific services without using their mobile data allotments. For example, if you have AT&T, you can stream DirecTV Now (which AT&T owns) on your mobile network without using your data. But if you watch Netflix (which AT&T doesn’t own) AT&T will count the data against your monthly limit. The biggest argument against this kind of system is that 1) it violates net neutrality by favoring one service over another, and 2) it’s anti-competitive in the market, with AT&T favoring its own streaming service, as an example. The ISPs say that they’re just trying to give their customers free data.

How did we get here?

In 2015, in response to months of outcry from tech leaders, advocacy groups, and independent citizens, the FCC classified broadband internet as a public utility. Doing so gave the FCC regulatory power over internet service providers. That authority would allow the FCC to force internet providers to offer services to remote or rural areas, for example. It also made net neutrality an official policy all ISPs would be expected to honor. The move was largely applauded by consumer protection advocates and tech leaders, but the country’s largest ISPs felt differently. One voice against net neutrality actually came from within the FCC. Ajit Pai, then one of the FCC’s five commissioners under its chairman, Tom Wheeler, openly spoke out against the concept. He argued that the new policies amounted to needless meddling in the free market

Fast forward to today. Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman who championed the new net neutrality rules, is no longer at the FCC. He resigned shortly after the 2016 election, as is customary when the incumbent party loses the majority or the presidency. Ajit Pai, the commissioner who vocally opposed net neutrality, now holds Wheeler’s old spot. Upon taking office, Pai immediately began speaking out against the 2015 policy, saying in a speech that net neutrality’s “days are numbered.” By May of this year, the FCC had voted to repeal the 2016 net neutrality policies.

How does this affect online education?

To date, vocal educators have largely spoken out in defense of net neutrality, and they have a few main concerns. In her editorial for Inside Higher Ed, Jeanne Zaino predicted that, without net neutrality, “entertainment focused and commercial sites would be put on the ‘fast track,’ while educational and other less popular sites might be disadvantaged.” Writing for the same publication, librarian and researcher Barbara Fister went a little further: “The problem for libraries and higher ed and nearly everyone else who uses the internet is that it may become prohibitively expensive to reach our audiences, provide our services, and communicate ideas.” And back in 2014, The Chronicle for Higher Education went so far as to muse that, without net neutrality, the Occupy Wall Street movement would never have happened.

But not everyone in education sees net neutrality as a perfect policy. Bryan Alexander, known for the Future Trends in Technology and Education report, considered whether a web without net neutrality could actually enable faster and cheaper educational access. Basically, if internet providers used a zero-rating system for educational resources, users would have free access to those sites. By nature, zero-rating violates the principle of net neutrality, since it prioritizes one type of data over another. But the idea is a significant argument against the notion that education will suffer without net neutrality.

Looking ahead

It’s important to note that the predictions about what would happen without net neutrality are just that – predictions. While we do have several examples of what can happen when internet providers don’t honor the principle, it’s impossible to know whether it will be quite as terrible as some are supposing, or whether there could be unexpected advantages like Bryan Alexander has pondered.

Do you have anything to say about this topic? Post a comment and join the conversation.

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