Net Neutrality and Its Implications for Libraries

LITA Technology and Access Committee Program
MCP W-184
Gregory A. Jackson, University of Chicago; Carrie Lowe, OITP for ALA; Clifford Lynch, Director of the CNI 

Clifford Lynch tells Cool History. Thinks Net Neutrality is a relatively new phrase, says it happened within last 10 years–but is an old idea. Monopolies, natural or otherwise.

Once upon a time, there was a thing called the Bell System aka “Ma Bell”. It was a natural monopoly that took care of all those wires and knew what was good and appropriate for the network and for innovation. Only Bell standard equipment was attached to the network. There were no answering machines.

Innovations we saw in telephony starting in the 70s were all largely illegal. Court cases against Bell’s monopoly broke the pricey monopoly for long-distance service. Some of this ties into the evolution of Net Neutrality. To what extent was the phone company a neutral decision maker in the carrying of signals?

Now, mid 1990s, when the internet was moving from research institutions to a consumer service of interest, enormous price competition and price variation between providers. You didn’t hear a lot of concern about ‘altered internet’ access. The low barrier to entry for an ISP led to expansion, all you had to have was a bank of modems. If you didn’t like the policies from one ISP, you had a lot of choice in switching. Problem: Modem tech reached its limits. Ouch. To REALLY do what you wanted with a MM rich network, you had to have more power. Either you could do something with the existing phone system, cable, perhaps radio, or cable it yourself drag a wire into your home (expensive). Viability, you come down to 2 options in bband, telephone or cable. Most homes have only one choice though, either get it from your telco or your cable. So now we have a monopoly or duopoly.

So what are they doing? Formerly, all you can use, now rate limiting is common, or not letting you access some sites (like high-bandwidth gaming sites) unless they pay a tariff. Some sites they may not LIKE, and so they may shape your activities by slowing to certain sites. Pay extra, or else.

These are the network neutrality issues that are turning up all over again, deja Bell. Blurry lines exist between filtering and Net Neutrality. Cultural memory orgs and others might get crowded out in this scenario. So a major mediaco might be able to pay the ISP to provide, but something like Public TV might not. In fact, tactics of networks may be to ‘hold up’ the ISP, you can’t have our content unless you pay these licensing fees. Number of mobile providers has diminished, very few choices, and where will these issues be emergent? Mobile!

Carrie Lowe for ALA says, “Network Neutrality is a principle of online non-discrimination”. Users should be able to access any content they need and attach any devices they can. A neutral network is one where no provider could establish exclusive deals and charge the ISP. It IS an intellectual freedom issue. Libraries are creating a role for themselves as PROVIDERS of online info. Who is to say that ISPs would not give libraries, typically unable to pay, lowest priority to distribute content. 2005 ended the idea of NN as a central guiding principle of the Internet. The SC ruled that cable ISPs did not have to maintain neutrality because they were not “telecoms” or communication services. (WooHoo! or BooHoo! depending on your side in issue.)

AT&T agreed in the merger with BS to strong network neutrality with specific language against rate limiting and non-neutral practices).2008 Comcast is blocking p2p on their network.

President Obama, what will happen? Spoke of Net Neutrality and support. FCC is in flux at this time, and the stimulus package is where you will see this play out. Some language was included for these projects. Also, it includes a portion that the FCC will develop a national broadband plan. This FCC will likely take a stand on this issue. She is excited!

Gregory Jackson says, “Why we call it the internet.” We call it that because it is a network of networks, not something that just reaches out and touches us, every one.

Proposes that you must look at local network management to see how it all will play out because local networks must make the same hard choices on a smaller scale. Tells stories. Good stories! U of Chicago. Larry Lessig influenced President Obama re: Net Neutrality.

Story 1

Hypothetical. If a member of your law school decides to run for president, while he is a faculty member, there are lots of things he can do with the college network. Publish, for instance. So library might decide to biblio a collection of this person’s thinking. There might be fans of this person’s thinking, advocacy groups, etc. But the moment he becomes a candidate, it is now no longer possible to offer this, as a non-profit maintaining status. So now you have a tension, what do you do?

Story 2

The library (great library of the world, great collecting library) is making lots available to the world. But a lot of stuff is restricted in one way or another, and these restrictions are increasing, depending upon who you are, student or alumnus. Applying principles of this discrimination is loss of neutrality.

Story 3

Research, instruction, and community service are the principles of the U of C. But our network is a finite resource. Some uses compromise other uses. We must ‘tune’ the network, moving certain traffics at higher priority to allow streaming education. In a way, this is just what Comcast is doing. Who gets to decide? It is our network, and we get to decide. (Oops, that is just what Comcast did.)

Raises issues

What is a network for? You can’t afford to provide everything for everybody.

The way that intellectual property is licensed has not kept pace with the way that people use networks in the modern age.

Ultimately, all of this is about Risk Management. If you clamp it down, your faculty will go elsewhere, taking that Nobel prize with them. How do you balance? This is not about right and wrong, it is about managing risk.


Q: Discovery Tools–they may not be neutral. How do they fit in here?

A: New fed procedure rules, the e-discovery thicket. Think about prevalence of largest search engine and the barriers to entry that are set up for new search players.