Why #NetNeutrality Matters to Higher Ed

image of link to a generic web addressThis is a joint post by Adeline Koh and Siobhan Senier (@ssenier), Associate Professor of English at the University of New Hampshire.  Siobhan’s current research and teaching interests include Native American Studies, Digital Humanities, Sustainability Studies, and Disability Studies.  Find out more about her research on her website, Writing of Indigenous New England. 


If you work in the digital humanities–or for that matter, in higher education–net neutrality is an issue that calls for a concerted response from all of us now. if you’re still getting caught up, check out Adeline’s post on this from last week, Alexis Madrigal’s guide to the history of Net Neutrality, and Colorlines on why people of color need to care about this.

Net Neutrality is the principle that all Internet content should be treated equally. Current proposed changes by the FCC would allow Internet Service Providers like Comcast to charge content providers(say, Netflix or the DPLA) a premium for access to the fastest service. Why does this matter? Think about how quickly you lose interest if a website takes longer than usual to load. The New York Times reported that people will visit a website less often if it is slower than a close competitor by more than 250 milliseconds (a thousandth of a second).

There is some argument in the press over whether the FCC has actually changed course since Verizon v. FCC limited its power to prevent broadband providers from blocking or discriminating content or services (the FCC Chairman claims it hasn’t).

Still, let’s just be clear about why net neutrality matters to scholars, teachers, and activists. The loss of net neutrality means that:

  1. All non-profit content will compete with commercial content on the Internet. This means that your digital humanities web project, your course management page etc., the website for a small activist group will load much more slowly than sites like Amazon and Netflix.
  2. The systematic overrepresentation of corporate interests on the Internet. Sounds familiar? This means that instead of being a potential public sphere for the spread of new ideas, the Internet will become very similar to the mainstream media, in which all news outlets are being owned, controlled and dominated by a very small number of firms. Under the loss of Net Neutrality, guess which website will load faster–Fox News or Alternet?
  3. You might have to pay a premium to publish your research on a commercial platform that has a large audience. In general, humanities journals do not charge to publish articles, but do to make them open access, while in the sciences an article processing fee is standard. Imagine a future where all researchers are charged a substantial fee to publish on a platform, because only powerful corporate platforms have the resources to pay for a “fast lane” to the Internet Service Provider.
  4. The erasure of digital activism and citizen empowerment. Small websites that galvanize online communities will not have the same amount of impact–or even organizing power–with the loss of net neutrality. It’s also arguable that movements such as Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring could not have taken place without net neutrality.
  5. Already-existing inequities will be worsened.  To take just one example, current broadband access among Native Americans is shockingly low: fewer than 10 percent have it, compared to some 65 percent of all Americans, according to the Association for Tribal Libraries, Archives and Museums (ATALM). Nevertheless, the past few years have seen a remarkable resurgence in indigenous activism worldwide, thanks in part to Twitter hashtags like #idlenomore and tools like crowdsourced maps of Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous women. The FCC proposal seems to poised to squash electronic activism around indigenous sovereignty just as it’s getting off the ground.

So, what can we do?

  1. We can email our legislators and the FCC itself ( to demand that broadband access be classified as “Title II telecommunications service.” According to Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, “these are the magic words that [...] let the FCC tell companies ‘this is like a telephone call, between the people involved, not something you get involved in — you are hired to move the information, not mess with it.’”
  2. We can join forces with the many organizations dedicated to this issue, including FreePress, Demand Progress,  The Center for Media Justice, Open Technology Institute. Sign this petition, which requires 100 000 signatures for a mandated White House response.
  3. We can join forces as academics. We know that individual academics and digital humanists have been working on Net Neutrality for many years–Larry Lessig and Siva Vaidhyanathan, to name only two. But we’d like to organize a more concerted and unified academic presence, especially among those of us who do digital work. Jesse Stommel (@jessifer), Tom Scheinfeldt (@foundhistory), Siobhan (@ssenier) and Adeline (@adelinekoh) are working on an open letter from academics about Net Neutrality. If you’d like to be involved, please leave your contact information here. If there are people already working on this issue, collectively, we would very much like to hear from you–please let us know by adding your name here.

On Friday at 1pm Eastern, Hybrid Pedagogy will host a #digped Twitter chat focused on Net Neutrality. Watch the journal for an announcement with more details.

Creative Commons Image by Rock1997 on Wikimedia

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