The Federal Communications Commission building in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

By Terry W. Hartle and Jonathan Fansmith

The debate surrounding the Federal Communications Commission’s effort to revise the net neutrality rules has been heated and intense. Spurred by privacy advocates and late-night talk show hosts alike, the FCC’s rulemaking process received millions of unique comments, and drew the kind of national attention usually reserved for only the most contentious legislation.

There are legitimate fears over what this effort will mean for privacy and consumer protection, but there are a set of much more immediate concerns that aren’t getting anywhere near the same level of attention — namely, the fact that this proposal will make college more expensive and more difficult for students.

To understand why, you only need to look at how deeply intertwined modern higher education is with the Internet.

Colleges and universities have massive online presences, both as end users and as content providers. The number of students who access campuses (both classes and services) online is growing exponentially. A 2017 study by the Babson Survey Research Group found that the number of students studying online grew by 11 percent from 2012 to 2015 alone. Advanced research is being performed collaboratively, in real time, across the country and the globe. The advances obtained through that research are shared widely, often instantaneously. The cultural wealth of thousands of university libraries and collections is made available to the public at no cost.

To do those things, institutions now rely heavily on the Internet. We use networks to collaborate on and disseminate advanced research; we share and store massive repositories of knowledge utilizing offsite data; and even our office operations and learning management systems are increasingly dependent on cloud-based productivity software.
This is a good thing. It’s central to our missions, and it’s what the public expects of colleges and universities.

But all of those applications depend on a stable, reliable Internet, and that brings us back to what the FCC will consider on Thursday. The proposed order would allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to do a variety of things they’re prohibited from doing now, including slowing or even blocking content unless those companies and organizations making content available (like colleges) pay additional fees to be prioritized (known as “paid prioritization”). Because the public accesses content from colleges across dozens of ISPs, few institutions will be able to afford those fees. Many schools will face significant new limits on their ability to teach, research and share information.

What’s more, many of the applications we use to perform these services, such as Google Apps for Education and Microsoft 365, are provided by outside vendors, who will see their costs to operate increase or face a competitive disadvantage. It is inevitable those costs will be passed on to users.

Obviously, there is no viable alternative available to colleges. They can’t simply reduce their online presences by any meaningful degree. So if the plan put forward last week goes into effect, there will be two likely consequences for colleges and universities.

First, for all the reasons identified above, a large portion of what we do will become more expensive, most likely significantly so. Those costs can’t simply be swallowed by schools, so they will be passed on to students and their families without any additional benefit provided to them.

Second, (and these aren’t exclusive), we may see a meaningful degradation in the quality of the education we provide and the research we perform. This would be true across areas of operation, as ISPs prioritize, manipulate or otherwise distort service. Students will have a harder time taking exams or watching high-bandwidth feeds of lectures or events online. Faculty will see their ability to work outside their school made more difficult, slowing research. And the public will face increasing limits on how they can access the range of information and services campuses provide to their communities.

There is a third consequence that may be less likely, but is in many ways more troubling. Without additional protections, providers could restrict or block content they find objectionable. Even if an ISP doesn’t have an ideological agenda, it’s not hard to envision a corporation wanting to limit or suppress certain types of speech if a large number of their subscribers request it.

Academic freedom demands strong debate on controversial issues, but one can easily imagine what opponents of various positions may ask their providers to censor. It’s happened before. In 2007, Verizon temporarily blocked the usage of text messaging over its network by a group that supports abortion rights, arguing it had the right to block “controversial or unsavory” speech. That kind of suppression of speech would be a direct threat to the mission of higher education and detrimental to the public’s interests.

Advocates of the proposed order argue that requiring providers to give public notice of their practices, combined with competition in the marketplace, will prevent the worst of these practices. This is hardly reassuring considering the order’s simultaneous argument that paid prioritization would actually be beneficial to the public.

It ignores the fact that for many schools and their students (especially those located in rural or underserved areas) there is often only one provider available to them, if that. The proposed order waves away that concern by saying that users who are harmed by this set of circumstances can pursue antitrust litigation against their provider. That’s true, but at best, it would cost a college huge sums of money with the best-case scenario of a solution years down the road. This is hardly a meaningful protection.

The Internet was created and envisioned as an open platform for education and research, and that is at the core of what colleges do. The higher education community has consistently reiterated its commitment to those principles. When the FCC commissioners meet Thursday, they have a clear choice. They can acknowledge and preserve the role of the Internet in expanding and improving education and research, or they can make students and researchers pay more to get less.

Terry W. Hartle is senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education (ACE), which represents colleges and universities. Jonathan Fansmith is director of government relations at ACE.