Net Neutrality: What Does It Mean For Libraries?

iStudent Blog

Published: January 29, 2018

With the Federal Communications Commission’s recent decision to repeal net neutrality, what exactly does this mean and how does it impact libraries? As aspiring information professionals, it’s important for iSchool students to understand this issue and its potential influence on the future of libraries. I did some research to learn more and summarized the key points for you below.

What is it?
According to the American Library Association, “Network neutrality is the concept of online non-discrimination. It is the principle that consumers and citizens should be free to get access to—or to provide—the Internet content and services they wish, and that consumer access should not be regulated based on the nature or source of that content or service.” Up until the end of last year, the Internet was treated essentially the same as other public utilities, such as water, electricity, etc. Another term you have probably come across is “open Internet,” which is the concept that information on the web should be equally available, free from the financial motivation of Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

What Changed?
The Restoring Internet Freedom initiative was passed by the FCC on December 14, 2017. This restored the previous “light touch regulatory framework” that had been in place up until 2015 for nearly 20 years. The FCC believes that the framework will restore “a favorable climate for network investment [which is] key to closing the digital divide, spurring competition and innovation that benefits consumers.”

At this point we do not know exactly what ISPs will do in this deregulated environment. It’s possible that they may charge a premium for access to a priority lane, meaning those who pay more will get their content delivered faster. With a priority lane inevitably comes a slow lane for those that cannot afford to pay or do not want to. ISPs could also theoretically block content or favor their own content.

Why Does it Matter to Libraries?
As advocates for intellectual freedom and champions of First Amendment rights, librarians promote Internet accessibility for all. That’s why the majority of librarians are concerned about the repeal. As Krista Cox of Association of Research Libraries stated, “An open Internet is the bedrock of equitable access to information.” People use the Internet in libraries to apply for jobs, access primary source materials, do homework, and many other reasons. Videos and other media rich content would take longer to load in the “slow lane” which could have a big impact on the user’s experience. Libraries also provide virtual services that could be affected. Many libraries are already operating on a tight budget and cannot afford to pay more.

Now What?
21 U.S. state Attorneys General have filed a lawsuit to challenge the decision. However, according to CNET, it seems unlikely that this will succeed. Either way, it won’t happen overnight, requiring the support of the Senate, House and President. Where do you stand on the matter? Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments.