Educators and net neutrality

The District of Columbia Court of Appeals just ruled that the FCC’s position on net neutrality sometimes also called the open Internet was not warranted. Net neutrality concerns a service provider’s authority to control the rate at which specific content can be sent through the system they provide users. They can prioritize some content over others. I continue to search for a way to explain what this is like and am always in danger of misrepresenting what is actually the case. As an analogy, I think it is fair to contrast the present situation with a toll road. With an open system, the price charged for a car or truck is set. If the new rules could be applied to the Internet, a toll road going through Detroit might allow American made cars to drive at 70 while limiting foreign cars to 45. Or, perhaps, there would be 10 toll booths for American made cars and 1 for foreign cars. The idea is that the self interests of the provider could come into play in influencing business opportunities that would likely be considered going beyond providing a service and making a profit on that service.

Positions on situations such as this are often spun in different ways. The providers wanting greater control point to what is argued as a misuse of the present system. For example, the proportion of Internet traffic that now is taken up by companies such as NetFlix has been used as an example. The providers argue they do not benefit in trying to keep up with the demand that is generating profits for a small number of content providers. A similar argument is made claiming that a substantial proportion of bandwidth is used by services that provide a conduit to what is often stolen content (music, video).

I am not certain I understand the first argument. I know that to connect a server to even an individual a provider expects a higher monthly fee. The content provider also pays a differential fee depending on the amount of content served. Part of the issue seems to be the concern that the provider could prioritize certain providers over others and who would determine when this was appropriate? For example, Internet services come to use from two likely categories of providers – phone companies (DSL) and cable television companies (cable). These two categories of providers have several income streams – there is the Internet access and there is either typical phone services (telephone calls, perhaps SMS) or content (television programming, pay per view content). There are potential conflicts of interest here – the phone company may see VOIP as a competitor (facetime, Skype) and the cable company may see free or commercial video (e.g., NetFlix) as a competitor.

There are other issues. The “right” of a company to offer services as it sees fit is often justified arguing that customers not finding the service acceptable can simply take their business elsewhere. However, many of us have only one option (and often not a good one) for a connection to the Internet. This has been a long standing issue with phone and cable services and regulatory mechanisms have been put in place over the years to deal with such monopolistic situations. In fact, to return to my original analogy, the government at some point created the interstate highway system because access to ways to move physical goods was considered a right for all citizens.

Anyway, how Internet access is made available is a challenging and politicized issue. The issue was first raised in the 2007 – 2008 time frame and I wrote about it at that time. My concern was not as a user, but as an advocate for students. I assume that government subsidies such as the e-rate will support school use, but the increasing reliance on online resources out of school will contribute to the to existing problem of income-based inequities. I am also concerned as an educational content provider. I personally subsidize the resources I provide, but I am concerned my server costs will increase. Sometimes I am concerned that my perspective is self serving. I am pleased when I see a similar position taken by others.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *