4 Things You Should Know About Net Neutrality

net neutralityThe concept of an Open Internet and the ways in which it might be protected have made big news over the last couple of months. The net neutrality debate isn’t new, but a recent ruling from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) brings it to the front page and educators at all levels are weighing in on the benefits and challenges.

What are the potential effects of the new FCC rules [PDF] on online courses? What do online instructors and students need to know? When asked for my opinion recently, I quickly realized I needed to know much more before I could add anything to the discussion. My attempt to make some sense out of it all resulted in a little clarity and a lot of questions.

1. The concept is a basic one.

What is net neutrality? Let’s start with the FCC’s description: “an Open Internet means consumers can go where they want, when they want. This principle is often referred to as Net Neutrality.” There’s an essential component of consumer protection here. The latest rules are designed to ensure that the entities that provide us with access to the Internet (e.g., cable companies, phone services):

  • Don’t block a user’s access to web-based content (via computer or mobile device).
  • Don’t throttle Internet traffic based on the type of content or service being accessed.
  • Don’t prioritize how specific types of Internet traffic are handled, such as creating “fast lanes” for those who have paid a fee to have their content accessed this way.

Last year a collaborative effort of 11 higher education and library groups created a list of Net Neutrality Principles with the needs of educators, students, and researchers in mind. These items specifically address blocking, throttling, and prioritizing Internet traffic, as well as a need to ensure neutrality on public networks.

2. The debate surrounding it is complex.

Whether you are “for” or “against” net neutrality as a principle or the FCC ruling, depends in part on how you use the Internet and your stance on a host of other issues ranging from politics and business to the economy and the U.S. legal system. I see net neutrality through my own set of lenses as someone who earns a living online. I also volunteer in my local library every week and see what public networks mean to those who don’t have computers and connection at home, including having access to online courses and job application sites. There are many other lenses though.

Those who are operating businesses online, leading start-ups, and of course the Internet providers themselves, see the potential impact of the ruling differently. This difference of perspective can be seen through reactions published by individuals, mainstream media, and independent organizations. You’ll find a variety of voices and concerns ranging from Fox News to the American Civil Liberties Union. Joshua Steimel’s “Am I the Only Techie Against Net Neutrality?” provides another view of how future rulings may impact competition, privacy, and freedom.

The discussions and decisions related to net neutrality are breaking new ground in the digital era. We don’t really know how the latest rulings and those that follow will affect users and providers. There are a lot of theories and predictions, but it’s hard to say with any certainly what will change and how. Many argue that the Internet and access to it isn’t neutral at all – we already pay for varying levels of service via different fees for different speeds. And others see the latest rules as an example of interjecting government oversight where it isn’t needed.

In order to more objectively assess all of the possible implications of the FCC ruling we need to learn more about:

  • What the Internet is: What is the Internet – a resource, system, or consumer product? At the crux of the new rules is the categorization of Internet service providers as public utilities, which can be regulated by the government just as electric, water, and phone services are.
  • How the Internet works: I remember being at an academic conference ten or more years ago hearing Vint Cerf explain how digital information moves from a creator’s server to your computer. I’m still not sure I fully understand the tech side of it all, and according to Wired it works in multiple ways, and these ways are changing.
  • Who is involved: The debate isn’t just about consumers as individual Internet users. It’s also about content providers: the people, businesses, schools, and organizations that publish materials online. Internet providers, such as Comcast and Verizon, also have a lot at stake. Government agencies, Congress, and the court system are also involved in discussions and the decisions being made about how the Internet should be accessed.

3. It is relevant to online education.

No matter your role in higher education, chances are you have come to rely heavily on access to and the capabilities of the Internet for teaching and learning. The net neutrality debate is a reminder that we shouldn’t assume our experience will always be what it is today.What is the FCC trying to protect? How would an end to the Open Internet affect students and instructors? We don’t know exactly what would happen, but several groups are making predictions.

EDUCAUSE presents a hypothetical scenario in which a community college student is faced with a slowed connection to her online courses, resulting in “videos that don’t stream reliably, and some actions time out before they can be completed.” In this situation, the college might not be able to pay extra fees imposed by providers to improve transmission of “bandwidth-intensive content.”

Another hypothetical scenario from the National Education Association compares two students researching a paper. One has access to the Open Internet and “is free to choose … resources from small, highly specialized content providers or large global corporations,” no matter how she accesses the Internet. While a student without Open Internet access “might be blocked from accessing resources that compete with content offered by his Internet service provider.” Comcast and NBC Universal are affiliated, for example, so in this scenario the student’s search may result in links to NBC Learn materials.

4. The debate continues.

At this point I’ve done a lot of reading and understand the debate a little better, but there’s so much more to learn. I count myself among other educators – watch Harvard Professor Jonathan Zittran’s response to the FCC rules – that “aren’t sure it’s an earth shattering deal.” There’s a wide range of positive and negative possibilities out there, as yet to be determined.

It seems we won’t see much difference in our Internet service and access anytime soon. The February ruling from the FCC isn’t scheduled to take effect for several months, and multiple lawsuits have already been filed. In the meantime, it’s important for us to stay informed on the issue, and openly discuss the pros and cons as they relate to our ability to deliver and participate in online education opportunities. Monitor the next steps of net neutrality through updates from the FCC, and multiple media outlets providing a wide range of perspectives. Share your concerns with the legislators representing you and your interests in Congress, and follow the reactions of your professional associations as the debate moves forward.

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Source: Inside Online Learning Blog