On December 14th, 2017, the United States FCC ended its policy of net neutrality.
I’ve been writing about this topic for some time (on balkanization; on EDUCAUSE; on Internet2; on ISTE and NMC; on zero rating) and now would like to pick up on one emergent theme. How should the education world respond to the demise of net neutrality? What are our possible strategies?
First I’ll list options and their advantages. Next, reasons not to act will appear at the end of this post. Disadvantages and other options are for you, dear reader, and maybe for another post.
Who should be involved? When I say “education” I’m thinking of the American education system, including primary and secondary schools, colleges and universities, libraries, and museums. I’m also thinking of professional societies and associations.
Who among that vast swarm is best positioned to take the lead?
Readers know from my work that EDUCAUSE has emerged as a serious leader in this domain. This week we also saw several high profile public libraries take a stand against the FCC’s decision, in terms of internet access for the poorest:
As strong advocates for and guardians of the right for people to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction, New York City libraries cannot possibly support such a measure.
Shifting from the organizational to the individual level, there are a also group of academics who could also provide leadership and guidance. I’m thinking of specialists with public roles, like Zephyr Teachout (Fordham University), Tressie Cottom (Virginia Commonwealth University), and Roy Gutterman (Syracuse University). There are also academics like Timothy Chester (University of Georgia) who are skeptical of net neutrality concerns, and they can keep the rest of us honest and our arguments well honed. We should also keep in mind public intellectuals working outside the academy, like data scientist and critic Cathy O’Neil. There are others.
Lobbying Congress Apparently Congress has a period of time to review and even undo the FCC’s decision. However, the Republicans, the political party that empowered Ajit Pai to end net neutrality, have majorities in both houses of the federal legislature, so success is unlikely. Assuming the Democrats uniformly support the previous policy, could educators focus our energies on several key senators and representatives, in order to crack those majorities? Or should educators instead focus on generating general outrage, the way popular howls of dismay helped block the Republican health care reform drive?
Getting political Educators could start staking out more public positions in favor of net neutrality. We could join or organize protests, marches, demonstrations. How many educators joined in the Verizon protests a few weeks back?
Getting even more political At the present time net neutrality is almost perfectly a partisan issue. Educators could throw in their lot with the Democratic party (more than we already do), openly linking up with those elected officials, and more strongly oppose Republicans.
Court cases Academics could help with legal challenges, of which there may well be several. Law school and pre-law faculty could file briefs and publish assessments, or offer advice to activists and sympathetic legislators.
Getting technical: surveying the surveillors Educators with the right skillsets and resources could keep an eagle eye on ISPs to alert the rest of us when they misbehave (throttling traffic, censoring content, setting up extortionate price plans, etc). We could show people how to use tools like this one to monitor their own network experiences, or join projects like this.
Furthermore, the politics of this decision – a mix of technology, government, plutocracy – will likely be studied by academics for years to come. Departments like American studies, economics, political science, media studies, and, of course, computer science will offer analyses and curricula.
Getting more technical: DIYnets One classic response to a disliked technology is the creation of an alternative technology. People unhappy with local ISPs can create their own networks. My little Vermont town did this a decade ago. It’s heroically hard work with numerous fatal problems, but in some situations people can boot up their own.
Should educators support this? We have the intellectual firepower all over the place, from computer scientists to IT departments and business faculty specializing in entrepreneurship.
Working with non-educational groups There are organizations beyond the education world that are active and could serve as allies. The ACLU, Open Media, Free Press, EFF, Fight for the Future Demand Progress are some.
Collaborating with corporations Some major technology businesses like Google, Netflix, and Twitter oppose the FCC’s decision.
Can educators work with these firms? Perhaps not, if we oppose them politically (for a variety of reasons) or deem their opposition ineffective or insincere.
We could also decide to do nothing.
That sounds appalling, but there are really several reasons and ways that could play out.
- American educational institutions have a very hard time with collective action. We don’t collaborate well with each other. There are legal restrictions on some collective behaviors (think antitrust, for a start).
- We have many political fish to fry, starting with the Higher Education Act reauthorization shambling through Congress now, not to mention the DeVos decision to back away from the previous administration’s sexual assault guidance. Campus and association leaders could well deem net neutrality of secondary or tertiary importance, and not worth the resources in a time of fairly common financial stress.
- Many academics might not feel the pain. Full time faculty and staff at many institutions can enjoy solid internet access on site. If their home or phone experience suffers, they can perform those internet functions in the office or lab.
- There is in the education space a longstanding desire to avoid the open internet. There are many reasons for this, which I don’t have the space to go into here. Suffice to say a good number of faculty, staff, and administrators could recommend their colleagues focus on on-campus activities, intranets, and learning management systems, avoiding that problematic internet.
- We might be persuaded that our fears were overblown. The howls of outrage are very loud this week. If the sky doesn’t fall quickly, if American ISPs hold back on the awful things they could well do, the air could leak out of the balloon.
So which shall it be? Will American education accept the end of net neutrality, or take the field to restore it?
I’m going to keep asking this question for a while.
(thanks to the kind people who interacted with my furious tweetstorm on Thursday; thanks as well to Paul Baldridge)