I was listening to NPR in the car when my local station (shout out to KNKX) broadcast a story called “How Repealing Net Neutrality Could Affect Schools’ Internet Access.” This new-to-me threat—the potential loss of teaching resources and academic internet access for students—woke me out of my commute-induced stupor faster than three shots of espresso. As much as I love the political coverage on NPR as it keeps me sharp and gives me plenty of great material for teaching government and politics, it sometimes feels very abstract. The true impact of decisions in “the other Washington” don’t always hit home right away (the exception being, of course, presidential and congressional elections). Net neutrality was one of those topics that was lost on me until it became a hot issue several years ago. It’s roared back on to the scene as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started deliberating a possible repeal of net neutrality with the ultimate goal of deregulating the internet.
For the uninitiated, net neutrality is the idea that websites and web-based services should receive neutral treatment from internet service providers (ISPs). Critics of net neutrality argue that we had an innovative internet before net neutrality regulations (passed in 2015), meaning that the risks to consumers are overblown. Advocates of net neutrality say that the ISPs shouldn’t be able to charge you extra for visiting certain websites (especially those that compete with services offered by the ISP) or throttle (intentionally slow down) your service based on your browsing and usage habits. However, prorating and throttling service is very profitable to ISPs, as they can deliberately or arbitrarily monetize access that was previously available with a simple internet connection at no additional cost. An internet without net neutrality should be of particular concern to schools. Richard Culatta, former teacher, subject of the NPR interview, and current CEO of the International Society for Technology, outlined the risks:
…one of the key elements of the Internet is that it provides immediate access to a huge range of high-quality resources that are really useful for teachers, whether it’s videos of science concepts, simulations – could be source materials and images from a Smithsonian gallery. Now, because it’s free and because we aren’t charging students sitting in a class to see those great resources, they don’t really provide any financial incentive for the carriers to provide those at a higher speed. Now, with net neutrality, of course, that was not an issue. But when carriers can choose to prioritize paid content over freely available content, schools really are at risk…the types of materials that students…(and) teachers are looking for don’t help the bottom line of Internet providers.
The content we use as educators – free or very cost-effective options – are not profitable for ISPs. Content accessed through public libraries, often the only technology hubs in poor and rural communities, is similarly vulnerable. Unfortunately, the FCC voted to eliminate net neutrality yesterday, putting access to the open internet at risk in our schools and public spaces. The bright side is that the full effect of repealing net neutrality will not be felt immediately, which will give advocacy organizations, state governments, and (possibly) Congress time to respond in the form of litigation and new legislation. Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson has already announced his plan to sue the federal government over the FCC’s decision and Washington Governor Jay Inslee announced a bipartisan effort in the legislature to create state net neutrality laws.
Net neutrality isn’t the only hot policy issue affecting education right now—what other policy issues are on your mind? Share in the comments!