Network Neutrality in the Cross Hairs

Jointly authored by Larra Clark, Krista Cox and Kara Malenfant.

It is widely reported that network neutrality is one of the most endangered telecommunications policy gains of the past two years. The ALA, ARL and ACRL—with EDUCAUSE and other library and higher education allies—have been on the front lines of this battle with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Congress, and the courts for more than a decade. Here’s an update on where we stand, what might come next, and what the library community may do to mobilize.

What’s at stake: Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular services or websites. Net neutrality is essential for library and educational institutions to carry out our missions and to ensure protection of freedom of speech, educational achievement, research and economic growth. The Internet has become the pre-eminent platform for learning, collaboration, and interaction among students, faculty, library patrons, local communities, and the world.

In February 2015, the FCC adopted Open Internet rules that provided the strongest network neutrality protections we’ve seen, and which are aligned with library and higher education principles for network neutrality and ongoing direct advocacy with FCC and other allies. The rules:

  • Prohibit blocking or degrading access to legal content, applications, services, and non-harmful devices; as well as banning paid prioritization, or favoring some content over other traffic;
  • Apply network neutrality protections to both fixed and mobile broadband, which the library and higher education coalition advocated for in our most recent filings, as well as (unsuccessfully) in response to the 2010 Open Internet Order
  • Allow for reasonable network management while enhancing transparency rules regarding how ISPs are doing this;
  • Create a general Open Internet standard for future ISP conduct; and
  • Re-classify ISPs as Title II “common carriers.”

As anticipated, the decision was quickly challenged in court and in Congress. A broad coalition of network neutrality advocates successfully stymied Congressional efforts to undermine the FCC’s Open Internet Order, and library organizations filed as amici at the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit. In June 2016, the three-judge panel affirmed the FCC’s rules.

What’s the threat: During the presidential campaign, and with more specificity since the election, President-elect Donald Trump and members of his transition team, as well as some Republican members of Congress and the FCC, have made rolling back network neutrality protections a priority for action.

Here’s a sample of what we are reading and hearing these days:

As in the past, attacks on network neutrality may take many different forms, including new legislation, judicial appeal to the Supreme Court, initiating a new rulemaking and/or lack of enforcement by new FCC leadership, or new efforts by ISPs to skirt the rules.

For instance, there may be an effort by some Members of Congress to craft a “compromise” bill that would prohibit blocking and degradation by statute but reverse the FCC’s decision to classify ISPs as Title II common carriers.  We are wary, however, that this so-called compromise may not give the FCC the authority to enforce the statutory rules.

So, now what? As the precise shape of the attacks is still taking form, the library and higher education communities are beginning to connect and engage in planning discussions. We will monitor developments and work with others to mobilize action to ensure Open Internet protections are preserved.

Library advocates can help in several ways:

  • Stay informed via District Dispatch blog (subscribe here) and ARL Policy Notes blog (subscribe here).
  • Sign up for Action Alerts so we can reach you quickly when direct action is needed.
  • Share your stories, blog and engage on social networks about the importance of network neutrality and the need to defend it.

Larra Clark is Deputy Director for the ALA Office for Information Technology Policy and Public Library Association. Krista Cox is ARL Director of Public Policy Initiatives. Kara Malenfant is ACRL Senior Strategist for Special Initiatives.