Why the death of net neutrality would be a disaster for libraries


Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during a news conference Thursday at the FCC headquarters in Washington. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

The Internet's eyes turned to the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday, as the panel approved a plan to consider allowing Internet service providers to charge Web sites like Netflix for higher-quality delivery of their content to consumers. In the lead-up to the vote, tech companies, venture capitalists and even celebrities all expressed opposition to the proposal, arguing that it would effectively end the open Internet.

But another group who cares deeply about this issue is the library community. The Switch spoke to Lynne Bradley, the director of government relations at the American Library Association's Washington office, about how net neutrality affects libraries, the people who rely on them and public institutions at large. This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Where do libraries stand on net neutrality?

Net neutrality is really important for libraries because we are, first of all, in the information business. Our business now is not just increasingly, but dramatically, online, using digital information and providing services in this digital environment. That means that we need to have solid and ubiquitous Internet services.

We’re interested in network neutrality for consumers at the home end, but also because it's key to serving our public. And that means the public libraries, the academic libraries from two-year community colleges to advanced research institutions, as well as school librarians in the K-12 community.

Network neutrality issues must be resolved, and we hope to preserve as much of an open Internet policy as we possibly can. The public cannot risk losing access to important services provided by our libraries, our schools and other public institutions.

And what specifically do you see as the role of the ALA in the debate over the FCC chairman’s net neutrality proposal?

ALA is working with the Association of Research Libraries, EDUCAUSE, and other tech-oriented higher education organizations, as well. We'll participate in these proceedings in the coming months, pointing out the needs of library and our users as well as the unique role that public institutions in particular and education entities in general serve for the American public. We'll explain how we use the Internet and why the risk of bring slowed down or, worse yet, being denied access is going to be a real problem for our institutions and for the people we serve.

We can't afford to pay more [to ISPs]. As public institutions, we're being threatened with limited resources and are trying to provide the best possible service we can given the access we currently have. Being slowed down hurts the American public because our institutions will not be able to compete, if you will, and the American public will not have comparable or equal access to the resources that are provided by libraries or other public institutions.

We'll be participating in the rule-making, working with other organizations and working with our members to figure out how any reports of slowdowns can be reported and determining the best way to proceed.

Who are the types of consumers who rely on libraries for online access or services? 

We find in library land that we are one of the main places that the public who does not have access to the high-speed Internet in their homes can go online. Use has been growing for many years, and now our online services rival more traditional services like book lending. Access to the Internet in general is a major component of how we serve the public.

Even with those who have Internet at home, we know they come to the library and, depending on different arrangements, have access to databases and other services -- sometimes from their homes or work because we provide virtual services, as well. So you can see why slowing down public access to our services is not what we want to see in public policies.

How did libraries react to the January court decision striking down the FCC's 2010 net neutrality order? Do you have a position on what you think would be the best solution? 

The library community was obviously disappointed, along with our colleagues in higher education and K-12 education, by the court decision. We would most prefer to have the Internet labeled as a common carrier in the Class II category. Given that, and if we end up with some other alternative, as appears likely to be in the case with notice yesterday, what we will still be doing is fighting for an open Internet by working with our members and others to identify slowdowns because that has a direct impact on our users.

We work every day with students of all ages, with adults, with families, with researchers, with small businesses, with advance reserach in our academic institutions -- and we see every day the impact that an open Internet can have. The arguments that we see [from Internet providers] that this is going to deny creativity and investment? We just don't see that. We see what it does for real people, like students needing distance-learning. And we know that most of our users and our institutions cannot afford the higher speeds to be able to provide our services along with those that I will euphemistically call the "big guys."

Take a local community college. What is it going to have to pay to compete with Kaplan or other for-profit schools? It's just not going to work. We don't just have connections like individual homes. We need major pipelines and major speed to provide the services that we do. So we were very disappointed in that court decision.

We'll have to see how the current policy debate works out, but I know the American public and certainly the ALA is going to be advocating for policies that ensure that we're not going to be stuck in the slow lane or denied access. And it's not just for us or our staff. We are serving the public. We're serving consumers.

Are their other aspects of this debate that you think are being overlooked?

One of the big questions that gets left unasked in the debate between Silicon Valley and the big ISPs is the bigger issue about how this affects the public interest and public institutions. This has not been addressed in the debate on net neutrality through the years: What are the costs to public libraries, to state colleges, to K-12 schools, to local governments and other not-for-profit organizations that provide significant public services?

And what we as librarians and as educators in our communities see is that subtle differences in these speeds can make a great difference in how a user receives and uses the information. Even slight slowdowns will have an impact and can potentially limit public access to public schools, to public libraries, to public education.

In a way, not having a truly open Internet is like privatizing all of the Internet. Our nation was built on the concept of public schools, and public libraries are part of that, even the universal service fund at the FCC. These are part of our nation's public policies that say as all educated, as all can have public libraries, as all can have public phone service, it's best for the country as a whole.

And now we're segmenting that and giving those who are able to pay more different access than the general public can have. I think we haven't explored the impact this is going to have on public institutions and the real way this will deny access.

We see users every day, both virtual users and in-library users, and we can see how these subtle changes are going to impact the public's access to information and the right to know.

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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