A variety of activities have taken place in recent months involving net neutrality, a critical issue for libraries and educational organizations. The continued adherence to the basic principles that ensure that information flows on the Internet to all users equally can no longer be taken for granted. A political climate that favors deregulation, court rulings that could dramatically impact the issue, and the questioned authority of the FCC to impose regulations on the Internet makes the preservation of net neutrality an uncertain question. In this article we lay out a basic definition of network neutrality, summarize some of recent events that stand to threaten its continued practice, explain why it matters to libraries, and review some of the recent statements or positions issued by key library organizations on the topic.
What is Net Neutrality?
The Internet consists of many interconnected networks that operate using a set of protocols that ensure that traffic flows among all the possible destinations. The routing equipment used on the Internet follow rules that ensure that data finds its way to the proper destination and that allow network operators to manage traffic to deal with congestion and other operational issues. With net neutrality in place data are routed and delivered according to the best and fastest pathways available and distinctions are not made regarding its content or originator. Lifting the practice would allow some types of traffic to gain privileged status, and to take advantage of the fastest performance available and other types of traffic shuttled into slower routed or even blocked entirely. Net neutrality is not a new proposition, but rather something that has been in place since the creation of the Internet.
Several types of networks come into play in the discussions of net neutrality. An Internet service provider offers connectivity to users of the Internet. Subscribers to these services include individual consumers in their homes, small businesses, schools, and libraries. Within the discussions of net neutrality, internet service providers that operate over the wired networks that serve stationary devices are distinguished from those that serve mobile users. Broadband services from cable operators such as Comcast or telephone carriers such as AT&T fall into the fixed or wired category while any of the data plans associated with cellular telephone service such as ATT Wireless, Verizon, or Sprint may be treated differently as wireless carriers.
The Internet also includes private networks that tap in through one or more high capacity connections, and route traffic internally for their users. These private networks would include universities, schools, corporations, and other organizations that provide internal network connectivity. These private networks do not fall under the same regulations as those that provide service to public consumers. The longstanding business model for the internet is based on fees charged to individuals or organizations for a specified level of bandwidth. A consumer might subscribe for Internet access through their cable company, for broadband access through a cable modem or for DSL from their telephony company. Small businesses or other organizations can subscribe though similar programs; large organizations such as corporations, municipalities or universities will likely purchase much higher level bandwidth services that connect their internal networks into the central routing structure of the Internet. Internet service providers scale the cost of the service according to the level of bandwidth specified in their subscription contract. The services provided by that organization and the level of consumption cannot technically exceed the contracted level of bandwidth. Organizations routinely increase bandwidth regularly as their demand inevitably grows.
The fees charged for Internet access on the wired Internet are usually tied to the maximum bandwidth allocated and are not usually tied to the actual volume of bandwidth consumed. The key point is that once an individual or organization pays for connectivity, no additional fees apply to make use of that connection to the fullest extent and with an expectation that information will be transmitted as efficiently as possible.
Under net neutrality, once an individual or organization has established a connection to the Internet at a specified level of bandwidth no additional fees would be incurred to initiate or receive content and any content transmitted would flow using optimal routes as it moves along the many networks and exchange points that comprise the Internet. An individual blogger, a small organization that wants to provide live streaming for an event, or a library that provides access to a multimedia collection would receive equal treatment to commercial services in the way that their traffic flows on the net. Any two persons or organizations that pay for the same level of connectivity can expect to receive the same throughput and quality of service.
Should net neutrality practices become weakened or eliminated, internet services providers would be allowed discretion in the way that they manage traffic, free to charge additional fees based on characteristics of the content transmitted above and beyond what has been paid for raw connectivity to provide optimal delivery or to allow delivery at all. The routing of traffic on the internet would not take place in a neutral way but might allow preferential or denigrated treatment based on competitive concerns or payments made for premium service.
Questions underlying Net Neutrality
Streaming video consumes more bandwidth and introduces new competitive situations as the Internet increasingly encroaches on television as the delivery mechanism for entertainment, news, and other forms of content. The massive demands on internet service providers introduced by the recent surge of interest in high-quality streaming video has been a major factor in bringing questions of net neutrality to the fore. Should broadband providers be allowed to collect additional fees to support the higher bandwidth consumed by commercial services or give preferential treatment to content associated with their own commercial interests? Should the internet devolve into a tiered environment, with the fast lanes reserved for preferred customers? Organizations not able to pay for premium service, such as educational institutions and libraries, have an interest in maintaining net neutrality and precluding scenarios where their content would be disadvantaged in delivery on the Internet. Is it allowable, for example, for internet service providers to charge high-bandwidth consumers such as Netflix premium fees for faster delivery of data needed for their services? Is it fair for services associated with organizations without the deep resources of high-profile commercial services to not have access to the fastest delivery options?
Comcast and Netflix
The example that showcases the controversy involves Comcast and Netflix, or specifically the internet service provider Level 3 that delivers Netflix traffic onto the Internet. According to Wired, consumers accessing Netflix can account for as much as a one-fifth of all Internet traffic during peak periods. (http://www.wired.com/ epicenter/2010/10/netflix-instant-accounts-for-20-percent-of-peaku-s-bandwith-use/). Although Netflix purchases capacity from Level 3 to funnel this traffic on to the Internet, broadband providers such as Comcast have to ramp up capacity to deliver the streaming service to their customers. Until recently, networks such as Comcast and Level 3 have routinely exchanged traffic without financial compensation. Beginning around October 2010 Comcast imposed a fee on Level 3 to recoup its costs in building capacity to accept the massive Netflix traffic. Level 3 has challenged the fee and this battle has become a major chapter in the drama over net neutrality.
Comcast's position has become even more entangled as it acquires majority ownership of NBC Universal, a major provider of content with strong competitive interests against Netflix. Regulatory approval of the deal was approved in January 2011, with some conditions stipulating that Comcast will not give NBC Universal content preferential treatment on its broadband services. With this deal, one of the largest internet service providers gains ownership of a major content provider, creating a combined organization with a complex entanglement of interests.
The Comcast versus Netflix case can be seen an early example that stands to erode the principles of a neutral internet in favor of tiered levels of service. In a tiered Internet, access to the fastest bandwidth could be reserved to those that pay premium fees, with others relegated to slower delivery. Companies such as Amazon. com, Netflix, Google, or e-Bay might find it worthwhile to pay for premium access to the internet; organizations lacking deep pockets such as libraries, local governments, small businesses, nonprofits, individual Web site operators, or bloggers would travel on the slow lane of the Internet.
Recent events impacting Net Neutrality
On December 21, 2010, the FCC issued a set of regulations that address issues of net neutrality. The regulations reflect a compromise position that to a large extent preserves the general principles of net neutrality, but with some significant departures. Different rules were issued for wired networks that serve fixed devices and those that serve mobile users. In broad terms, the rules that apply to mobile networks allow more discretion to carriers while fixed networks must operate closer to the principles of net neutrality. Advocates of net neutrality see the erosion of the principles on mobile networks as a major concern. Wired and wireless access to the Internet will co-exist indefinitely, though the proportions will shift toward the cellular network. The organizations with more immediate concerns for network neutrality on the wired networks today will face the same issues on the mobile networks in the future. One of the major issues centers on whether the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to impose regulations on the Internet. Legislation was introduced in January 2011 to the US House of Representatives by Marsha Blackburn (R- TN) to eliminate the authority of the FCC to regulate the internet, taking the position that net neutrality should be replaced by market forces as the governing principles of the Internet.
Impact on Libraries
Libraries have a strong interest in preserving the principles of network neutrality and avoiding the alternative scenarios where libraries as content providers and library users as content consumers may face limitations in bandwidth or increased costs. Under network neutrality, access to the resources of libraries and other cultural or educational institutions receives equal treatment relative to that of commercial organizations. In a tiered environment, libraries would be unlikely to have the funding to support access to the premium tier. Libraries also voiced interest in preserving neutrality based on content. Should internet service providers be allowed to block traffic based on content, it's possible that access involving fair use of copyrighted materials could be blocked. Libraries and educational organizations by in large have taken strong positions in favor of maintaining net neutrality.
Library Advocacy for Net Neutrality
Several library organizations have been involved in advocacy to preserve network neutrality. The FCC order sparked several recent studies and announcements by key library and educational organizations.
ALA has taken a strong position supporting net neutrality and participated in the comment process leading up to the FCC rule making. Once the rules were issued, the ALA Washington Office commissioned John Windhaussen and Bob Bocher to prepare a detailed assessment that itemizes what aspects of network neutrality the FCC regulations did or did not address. This assessment was published on January 24, 2011 and provides a matrix of key issues, the position that ALA supported related to that issue, and what the order actually states, with a brief narrative on each point. The matrix includes how fixed or mobile networks each may discriminate, block, allow paid prioritization, or allow special services that may not be subject to net neutrality principles and whether the relative scope of each is defined to include libraries or not. See: http://www.wo.ala.org/districtdispatch/ wp-content/uploads/2011/01/FCC-NN-Order-Matrix- Final-2011Jan241.pdf
The Association of Research libraries issued a brief addressing the FCC Net Neutrality rules. The brief, prepared by Kristen Riccard, summarizes ARL's involvement in the issue, mentioning the letter it issued to the FCC and related materials it has published and summarizes and provides background information on the issues covered in the rules relative to the positions of ARL. Of particular interest is the section of the brief that addresses lawful content and copyright, pointing out that the rules prohibiting blocking and discrimination apply only to lawful content, though without an explicit process on how network operators determine whether copyright is lawful and how fair use and other rights might be applied. Overall, ARL sees the current rules as falling short of the positions they advocated on behalf of the interest of their member libraries. The brief concludes by highlighting subsequent events such a Blackburn's bill and an appeal filed in the federal court by Verizon challenging the FCC's authority to regulate internet services providers.
The recent report and order by the FCC on net neutrality stands not as a final determination, but as more of as a touchstone event in an ongoing struggle regarding what rules will prevail on the Internet. Libraries have a vital interest in this issue and should continue to follow it closely and advocate for preserving the principles of net neutrality.