I’m going to deviate a little bit here on my discussion post and talk about not a Web 2.0 tool, but about an issue that challenges the very existence of the Web as we perceive it. The concept of Net neutrality, in a nutshell, holds that everyone who has access to the Web should have equal access to the Web, meaning that the hardware and software itself should not discriminate or value one user or group of users over another user or group of users. This has become an issue in the last few years because access providers–specifically, Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast–have suggested putting fast lanes and slow lanes on the information superhighway, so to speak. There are concerns that if they were allowed greater influence in the flow of information, they would begin to exercise monopolistic powers and deliberately hide or cripple Web services offered by competitors.
What this means for end users like us is that for the sake of their bottom line, we would either be restricted from viewing some Web content or we might have to pay extra to view it. For example, if you subscribe to a streaming video service that originates on lines owned by Verizon, but your service provider was AT&T, then you would either be unable to access the video service, or you could access it, but pay extra for it. Of course, AT&T could always direct you towards a service they support, but that would be the very definition of a monopolistic practice. Now, this example revolves around a simple entertainment scenario; but, what if your information need affected your ability to get or hold your job? What if your information need had to do with health issues–either yours or those of a loved one? What if your information need had to do with maintaining or defending your civil rights? Can you see where this is heading? At the core of the issue of Net neutrality is access to whatever information users need or desire. If Internet service providers are allowed to control who is able to access what information, they would, in effect, become corporate censors. And, since a healthy participatory government, such as ours in the US, relies on informed voters, you can probably see that political and social development could easily be crippled in such a scenario. Instead of Big Brother calling the shots, it would be a series of Big Boardrooms controlling the number and types of shots even available.
Net neutrality is an important issue for librarians because its absence threatens two of the core values of librarianship: equal access to information and intellectual freedom. The ALA has a very good page devoted to the issue with some excellent links at the bottom. Let me call attention to just one of the links, the one to savetheInternet.com. This is a sub-group of FreePress, a media education and activist group I’ve followed for a number of years now. As librarians, we have to be conscious of and defend the right of all citizens to access the information they need to make the decisions they wish to make for their own lives. That’s a fundamental fact of our democratic-republic (we don’t practice a real democracy). Since the Internet is increasingly becoming a primary tool for information gathering, it must be defended as an open medium. The ALA has taken a strong line against Net intrusion.
Those who side with AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast (there are other ISPs involved, but they’re the biggest three) spout the old line that it would not be in the companies’ best interests to disrupt the flow of information and harm competition. It’s a well-worn appeal to classical economics. And, it’s remarkably naive. The fact is that media and communications companies are not very interested in competition at all. They’re more concerned with consolidation–here’s a FreePress page on media and communications ownership. Very few owners control the majority of outlets, whether it’s print, broadcast, or Internet media. Some players like Viacom, News Corp., ABC/Disney, NBC/General Electric, CBS, TimeWarner, Clear Channel, and Comcast have large market shares in multiple media markets. (This severe dismantling of the media market began under the Clinton Administration with the Telecommunications Act.) What’s more, these corporations are fighting hard for the right to determine what ideas we can have access to. Just this last summer, Verizon petitioned the Supreme Court to force the Federal Communications Commission to give them greater power to regulate the Internet–here’s a good blog post on the subject.
Net neutrality is a big and important issue that we librarians must get involved with. I encourage you to learn more about this issue by visiting the ALA and savetheInternet pages I’ve provided links for and to check out this interview between Bill Moyers and Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner. The interview is 24 minutes long, but it will give you a good sense of what’s at stake in this struggle and is well worth the time!