Recent Events

Net Neutrality

Starting this session is Cliff Lynch, Director of the Coalition for Networked Information, putting the issues of network neutrality in context. ALA has a backgrounder at its website.  Although it’s a new phrase, it’s an old idea, says Cliff. It’s bound up with ideas of monopoly, common carriage and common carriers, and appropriate roles of telecom providers. He’s giving us a history lesson. He started with Ma Bell. He’s now up to dialup ISPs. Broadband gives us two options: phone or cable companies. It’s a duopoly, Ma Bell all over again. Suggestions about restrictions on amount of traffic or sites you can’t access. Dividing line between net neutrality and filtering or censorship is blurring. What about cultural memory organizations getting crowded out by commercial sites willing to pay your ISP? Broadband network has its ironies. ESPN wants ISPs to pay them. ISPs want sites to  pay them. Most prominent battleground for net neutrality is not just in broadband access to the home but also in mobile networks. Fundamental principles of public policy surrounding information access.

Carrie Lowe, Director of the Program on Networks, Office for Information Technology Policy for ALA, in the Washington DC office. Principle of online non-discrimination. Innovation occurs at the edges and ALA wants to foster that development. Libraries interest in net neutrality is twofold: intellectual freedom and providers of informaton of all kind. It’s a bread and butter issue for libraries.  Critics say that users who need more bandwidth should pay for it. This is a specious argument. It’s a traditional tiered payment model. But there should be no restrictions on the legal information a user receives, regardless of payment options. Cable companies in 2005 were reclassified as information service not communication service because of Supreme Court ruling. AT&T and BellSouth merger raised favorable net neutrality issues. Comcast in 2008 was found to be blocking peer to peer traffic. Comcast appealed. No hearing scheduled, puts it in limbo.  Obama talked about net neutrality on the campaign trail. FCC right now is in flux. Stimulus package includes funding for broadband and has some network neutrality provisions, but not that strong. She thinks network neutrality is heating up. FCC will probably take major stand.

Gregory Jackson, VP and CIO at University of Chicago, says we call it the Internet because it’s a network of networks, not like Ma Bell. You have to look at what is happening in networks that are managed locally. A colleague of Obama’s at Chicago’s law school was Larry Lessig, a major advocate, so no surprise that Obama supports network neutrality. UChicago connects to internet through 4 different “pipes.” Now he’s telling stories. 1. Hypothetically, suppose one of your faculty runs for president. Materials online before he was a candidate become advocacy sites and threaten university’s non-profit status. Tension ensues, but the rules are clear. 2. Suppose your library has wonderful collection, but much of it is restricted, particularly that which is collected electronically. Issue is making collection available to alumni, which violates licensing contracts. Or someone’s userid and password is compromised and someone in China tries to download entire run of a journal. 3. Suppose faculty wants to make video available, which violates network neutrality, although it fulfils the instruction mission of university. But it’s not a legal obligation. It’s their network, they get to decide, but that’s exactly Comcast’s position. 4. To get federal financial aid, universitites must agree to certain regulations and this year there are provisions about peer to peer sharing. Easy way is to block all p2p traffic, but can be used for perfectly good purpose. It’s a dilemma. All four stories raise the issues of what a network is and who is it for, how intellectual property is licensed (which hasn’t kept up with technology), and all of this is ultimately about risk management, not about right and wrong.

Marydee Ojala, Editor, ONLINE: Exploring Technology & Resources for Information Professionals

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