The term “net neutrality” refers to the concept that internet service providers should treat all data that travels over their networks fairly, without improper discrimination in favor of particular applications, sites, or services. According to the American Library Association (“ALA”), net neutrality is important to maintain for the purpose of allowing libraries to provide innovative information services to the citizenry, which will in turn encourage growth and development of this country’s democratic culture. Many librarians believe the end of net neutrality means an increase in the inequality of education and a widening of the digital divide.(1)
In 2014, President Obama described the “open internet” as “one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.”(2) Based on his direction, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) voted on February 27, 2015, to regulate broadband internet as a public utility.
The 2015 FCC regulations applied equally to broadband and mobile service providers and prevented (1) the blocking of transmission of any lawful content (2) the slowing of transmission of data as it connects to a user’s device, and (3) acceptance of payment by content companies for preferential treatment.(3)
In January 2017, President Trump appointed a new Commissioner, Ajit Pai, who vocally opposed the reclassification of the internet as a utility and general net neutrality principles.(4) Despite widespread opposition to easing laws ensuring net neutrality, the FCC voted on December 4, 2017, to repeal the 2015 Open Internet Order, which restored classification of broadband internet access service as an “information service” instead of a public utility and eliminated the rules set forth above and preempted any state net neutrality laws.(5)
In response to the drastic shift, a myriad of lawsuits challenging the FCC’s Restoring Internet Freedom Order have been filed. The plaintiffs in these suits include 23 state attorneys general (Georgia’s is not among them), public interest groups, and internet service providers. ALA filed an amicus brief supporting those plaintiffs.(6) The sixteen suits have been consolidated and are pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.(7) The standard the plaintiffs must meet is to demonstrate that the Restoring Internet Freedom Order represents action by the FCC that was “arbitrary, capricious, and abuse of discretion, or otherwise not in accordance with law.”(8) Given the multitude of parties in the suit and the complexity of the subject matter, the wheels of justice are expected to turn slowly. The current briefing schedule extends through November 27, 2018. After receipt of final briefs, the court will likely take months to reach a decision.
Meanwhile, the United States Senate, in May 2018, voted to disapprove the FCC’s rule changes. If a similar resolution passes in the House of Representatives, it will go to the president for approval. Currently, the House resolution has 178 supporters; 218 votes are needed.(9)
The concept of Net Neutrality reflects the same values inherent the library profession’s notions of intellectual freedom. As one librarian put it, “[w]ith an open internet under attack, we know [library] services and approaches are critically vital.”(10) As such, it is an important issue for librarians to track and weigh in upon. The current debate is likely to drag on through complex litigation and legislative maneuvering, neither of which is simple to follow. Stay informed and keep the issue at the forefront by sharing news items and alerts with library colleagues.
1. Tiffany, Kaitlyn, “What Public Libraries Will Lose Without Net Neutrality,” The Verge (Dec. 14, 2017), accessed September 11, 2018, https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/14/16772582/public-libraries-net-neutrality-broadband-access-first-amendment.
2. The White House, “Statement by the President on Net Neutrality” (Nov. 10, 2014), accessed September 11, 2018, https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/11/10/statement-president-net-neutrality.
4. Kang, Cecilia. “Trump’s FCC Quickly Targets Net Neutrality Rules,” The New York Times, Feb. 5, 2017, accessed August 30, 2018, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/05/technology/trumps-fcc-quickly-targets-net-neutrality-rules.html.
6. American Library Association, “ALA Files Amicus Brief in Support of Net Neutrality Protections,” (Aug. 28, 2018), accessed September 11, 2018, http://www.ala.org/news/press-releases/2018/08/ala-files-amicus-brief-support-net-neutrality-protections.