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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) just came out with a new ruling on who will prosper from and control the Internet — and who will not. Here is what we think the ruling means for charities and libraries.
This is the contentious part of the ruling: The FCC proposal leaves open the possibility that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Time Warner could charge content providers a premium for preferential treatment.
This means ISPs would be permitted to charge content providers, such as Netflix or Hulu, for access to a prioritized 'fast lane' that would allow them to deliver their content more rapidly to consumers.
Opponents of the decision argue that this violates basic principles of net neutrality, which is the idea that ISPs should treat all data that travels over their networks equally.
The FCC ruling opened a four-month public comment period, after which it will take a final vote on net neutrality. Anyone can email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or post them online under their ruling on Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet. All comments are publicly viewable here.
As recently quoted in the Nonprofit Times:
“Net neutrality principles support the free flow of resources between mission-driven organizations in the social sector through the critical infrastructure of the Internet,” she said. “A ‘fast lane’ means there is also a ‘slow lane,’ and social sector organizations will inevitably be consigned there, with consequences for their mission achievement and with negative impact on the millions who depend on social sector organizations as a lifeline and for other vital services.”
I think it's important to frame this in larger terms. The World Wide Web can either becomes a landscape with more and more "walled gardens," where my own data and content is fenced in and I have to pay to harness the full use of the Internet. Or we can assert that access to knowledge and a public Internet have a certain, intrinsic "public good" and should be regulated and protected.
Without a deeper commitment, those who want an open web will be continually scrambling and reactive, given the power of the interests looking to charge. The FCC has asked for public comment on new rules about net neutrality. Learn more about the FCC rulemaking process. Make your voice heard via the Electronic Frontier Foundation comment form here.
In the United States, more than 70 million people work in or volunteer for the nonprofit sector, and those numbers mean power. Libraries have higher approval ratings than Congress, the press, and those American standbys, baseball and apple pie. And that level of public trust and approval is power, too. We need to use that power to tell a clear and compelling story during the upcoming public comment period: While a handful of companies may benefit from this ruling, the critically important, life-changing, world-changing work of nonprofits and libraries could be consigned to the slow lane. We cannot and should not let that happen.
I originally hail from a part of the world, Hungary, when you learn quickly that whatever small portion of liberty you give up, there will always be forces on the receiving end that will be hungry for more. This FCC ruling — while vague and opaque — paves the way for scenarios where you would need to trust both lawmakers and market players at an unhealthy level to protect your interest both as an individual and the social sector at large. In case you consider yourself a forward-thinking person, just try to picture the following hypotheticals.
Think of the First Amendment and its relevance to you fulfilling your mission. Also, you probably don't want to pay extra for your website or fundraising video to load, do you?
I'm not seeing this as necessarily a zero-sum scenario. There are also delivery and consumption aspects to it. Fast lanes in public places are not necessarily bad. The HOV lanes free up the cars that would otherwise be clogging already heavy traffic on our expressways. In the case of the Internet, 10 people watching House of Cards on Netflix at the same time in my neighborhood slows down my Internet access. If people pay extra in Internet fees for their Netflix, that will probably free up bandwidth for me to access my library's website. Of course, social sector content providers (like TechSoup) can't pay for preferential delivery, but are users going to consume less because we are slower than Netflix or NBC Universal? The paltry bandwidth we have in the United States notwithstanding, it all depends on how it's going to be implemented. If it becomes a "utility," then I think it provides a little bit more protection than we have now. I am willing to see a tiered Internet with more regulation, but not one without the other.
As providers of free information, Internet access, training, and technology tools, libraries are one of the most active institutions in bridging the digital divide. When access to that information is filtered or unequal, the library and its staff cannot do its part in protecting intellectual freedom. It's easy to feel pessimistic about this recent news, but librarians and open-web advocates must take action.
In the United States, one of the basic tenets of our public services has been equal access. For examples, the U.S. Postal Service, the U.S. Rural Electrification Administration, and the U.S. Rural Telephone Administration all were created to ensure that American citizens had equal access to vital services such as mail, electricity, and basic telephone service at a reasonable cost regardless of their geographic location.
All three of these essential "backbone" services are rightly regulated as monopolies and/or quasi-governmental agencies in furtherance of our nation's democratic principles and they are expressly designed not to enable differential access.
Applying this principle to the recent FCC net neutrality ruling means this:
By allowing users to access resources otherwise off limits and to communicate with people around the world, the Internet is one mechanism for erasing the lines of race, geography, belief, ability, and age.
In addition to the equal access to technology that TechSoup is working to enable in the social benefit sector, we are also committed to erasing the digital divide around knowledge and the fact that not everyone in the nonprofit community has, uses, or knows how to use technology. This ruling bears on many other issues including the urban-rural divide, the price of access for low-income people, and the gender gap regarding technology access.
If fast lanes are inevitable (and I am not suggesting conceding the fight yet), it seems we need to start thinking about responses. These may include the following:
Do you have a view on the latest FCC net neutrality ruling and how it affects charities or libraries? Please log in and tell us.
Thanks for the insightful post on such an important issue. I enjoyed hearing the perspective of different nonprofit folks. Kevin brought up a good point about delivery and consumption issues. Depending on where you are located, there's going to be a difference in what kind of delivery quality you get from services like Netflix. Regulation is key to any kind of non-net neutrality arrangement. First Amendment concerns are the biggest reason I support net neutrality. Vague rules open the door to the throttling (effectively, censorship) of unpopular speech and information that is vital to democracy.
As I understand it, the FCC isn't addressing tiered levels of service on the consumer end. ISPs are already doing that very successfully. Nor does it address the need for more overall bandwidth.
Pure and simple, this ruling is about delivering increased profit to cable companies. How? By giving ISPs (i.e. Comcast and Time Warner) authority to charge competing content creators (i.e. Netflix and Hulu) more money for priority access to bandwidth -- bandwidth that the ISP will withhold from everyone who can't or won't pay up. In one fell swoop, it erases the basic tenets of internet fairness, restricts market competition, and squelches innovation (start ups will find it increasingly harder to enter the marketplace).
The FCC has a long history of protecting the oligopoly of big media dating all the way back to the early days of radio. This is just the latest chapter.
It was helpful to read the various comments about this FCC ruling. As a small nonprofit we struggle to pay the ISP. This ruling seems to be harmful and ultimately more costly to the consumer. I have long held that the internet is a utility and should be treated as such, much as the telephone service came to be.