Worried by FCC Plan, Net-Neutrality Advocates at Colleges Gauge Next Steps

May 01, 2014

Some members of the higher-­education community, including major professional associations and individual scholars, say they will fight proposed rules from the Federal Communications Commission that would reportedly allow Internet-service providers to charge a premium for faster connection speeds.

The rules, which will be publicly presented at the FCC’s May 15 meeting, have been characterized by some as a death knell for what’s known as net neutrality—the equitable treatment of all flows of information on the Internet.

"The implications for universities are profound in terms of restricting the ability to perform research, to share research, to collaborate, to provide our students with the best access to information and the best opportunities to learn," says Barbara Stripling, president of the American Library Association and an assistant professor of practice at the School of Information Studies at Syracuse University.

The commission’s plan to allow broadband giants like Verizon and Comcast to create tiered pricing under which some content would be delivered via Internet "fast lanes" was first reported by The Wall Street Journal. Writing on the FCC’s blog, the agency’s chairman, Tom Wheeler, criticized some news coverage of the proposed rules as "misinformation" but didn’t specifically refute the idea that the FCC would allow differentiated pricing.

The proposed rules would require Internet-service providers to disclose relevant operating policies and would prohibit them from blocking legal content, Mr. Wheeler wrote. The rules would also bar service providers from behaving in a "commercially unreasonable manner."

Haves and Have-Nots

This marks the FCC’s third attempt to write new rules to govern an open Internet. It comes nearly four months after a federal appeals court struck down FCC rules banning preferential treatment of certain Internet content.

As the jockeying around the proposed rules mounted this week, Mr. Wheeler seemed to push back, first in a new blog post on Tuesday and then in remarks at a cable-industry convention on Wednesday. There Mr. Wheeler again criticized reports about the proposed rules, saying that talk of Internet "fast lanes" missed the point "that any new rule will assure an open pathway that is sufficiently robust" to meet the demands of providers, innovators, and consumers.

"Our goal is rules that will encourage broadband providers to continually upgrade service to all," Mr. Wheeler said. "We will follow the court's blueprint for achieving this and, I must warn you, will look skeptically on special exceptions."

Any new rules will be tough and enforceable, and will safeguard the Internet from manipulation, he said.

"Let me be clear," Mr. Wheeler said. "If someone acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have-nots,' we will use every power at our disposal to stop it."

Mr. Wheeler’s words have provided scant comfort for net-­neutrality advocates, who argue that commercial content from companies like Netflix would be elevated over other, less-lucrative content under the FCC’s proposal. Tim Wu, a Columbia University law professor who coined the term "net neutrality," decried the plans in an essay on The New Yorker’s website.

"This is what one might call a net-discrimination rule, and, if enacted, it will profoundly change the Internet as a platform for free speech and small-scale innovation," Mr. Wu wrote. "It threatens to make the Internet just like everything else in American society: unequal in a way that deeply threatens our long-term prosperity."

Ensuring Equal Access

In some cases, it is individual scholars who are taking the lead in opposing the proposed rules. Adeline Koh, director of the Center for the Digital Humanities at Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and Siobhan Senier, an associate professor of English at the University of New Hampshire, are working to mobilize colleagues and others on the issue. They say they are drafting a letter to the FCC and are calling on other scholars to express their disapproval on Twitter using the hashtag #NetNonNeutral.

In other cases, professional organizations are banding together to take action. Twenty-two digital scholarly organizations have so far agreed to sign a letter to the FCC advocating for net neutrality, according to Bethany Nowviskie, president of the Association for Computers and the Humanities.

The letter marks the first time such collective action has been taken by the digital-humanities community on the issue, she says. Each individual organization is also expected to take its own steps to raise awareness among its members and to lobby the FCC and legislators.

Jarret Cummings, a spokesman for Educause, says that the education-­technology association had been working to schedule a sit-down meeting with FCC officials when news of the proposed rules broke. Now Educause officials are waiting for the details to determine their next move.

"For a whole host of reasons, we would like to see a world without paid prioritization," Mr. Cummings says. "But depending on what the FCC ultimately releases, we think the discussion about what a baseline level of service means, would look like, how it would be maintained, is going to be a very important consideration, especially if an outright ban on paid prioritization is not maintained."

Ms. Stripling, of the American Library Association, says she and her colleagues will participate in public proceedings to make a "strong statement" about ensuring equal access for all users. A hierarchy of Internet users that favors those who can pay steep fees would see universities near the bottom of the totem pole, she says.

"Increasingly all types of educational institutions are teaching online and needing to use streaming video," Ms. Stripling says. "Universities protect minority points of view, which are not necessarily represented in the large commercial entities."