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Our Voice, Our Community - Why Net Neutrality Matters

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February 16, 2018

Our Voice, Our Community
Why Net Neutrality Matters

By Tegan Davis

In case you missed it while you were gearing up for the holidays last year, the Federal Communications Commission voted to end net neutrality rules. Net neutrality is the idea that internet services providers (ISPs) treat all web traffic and activity equally without blocking, throttling, or creating “lanes” that are faster and more expensive, i.e. paid prioritization. Here are a few key points how net neutrality will affect you and our community.

Your Wallet. Burger King created a surprisingly good ad explaining the concept of net neutrality and paid prioritization. You can watch the ad here. Essentially, Burger King customers can choose the Whopper “fast lane” or “slow lane” depending on how much they’re willing to pay. The commercial illustrates that without rules, ISPs can charge companies, websites and consumers more money based on the type of “lane” they are willing to pay for — deliberately speeding up or slowing down internet content, referred to as “throttling.” ISPs already favor content they have a stake in. For example, AT&T customers can stream DIRECTV (owned by AT&T) without it counting against their data caps. Mobile networks already do this. So, why wouldn’t ISPs, especially ones that own their own cable television or streaming TV services, steer customers toward content that will make them more money? Customers could soon be paying higher fees for their everyday internet activities separately.

Your Access. In the past, net neutrality rules meant ISPs couldn’t control what you read or watched on the internet; they couldn’t block access to websites or apps and they couldn’t interfere with load speeds. Now they can. Whether you’re searching for news, area events or consumer health, the ISPs will be deciding what you’ll get access to and at what speed. This will affect everything you access on the internet — from continuing education and online job training to entertainment, social media and news. ISPs can affect your connection speed to the content you want, all the while collecting and selling your browser history.

More than 13,000 Eagle County residents still don’t have access to the internet, a local example of the digital divide. Even when people own a cell phone, they still cannot afford internet access in their homes. People often turn to libraries for free access to computers and the internet to do homework, research, taxes, pay bills, fill out healthcare forms, and find and apply for jobs. In 2016, the Eagle Valley Library District provided over 84,000 computer and wireless sessions. The end of an open internet will contribute to the widening of the digital divide by reducing access to information, education and opportunities, which is why librarians are speaking out. The American Library Association is a strong advocate for intellectual freedom, which it calls the “right of all peoples to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.”

Schools. Educators are increasing their use of online resources in the classrooms. K-12 school districts are worried the FCC’s decision could lead to limited choice and increased costs. School districts that rely on free, reliable access to high-quality online resources could see their access to these resources slowed while costly content from deep-pocketed sources is pushed into the fast lane. Educators also are worried startup education companies with new ideas won’t be able to compete against better-funded rivals, which will negatively impact innovation. Additionally, schools in areas without competition for internet service are at the mercy of a sole provider; they could incur higher costs for digital content without net neutrality.

Local Business. It will be a pay-to-play model for the World Wide Web. Large, wealthy businesses can afford to pay for “fast lanes,” thus creating an advantage over small businesses unable to pay. This creates barriers for small businesses and entrepreneurs who will have to bear the cost. They could pass the cost on to consumers, but their prices won’t be as competitive compared to their larger brethren. If these small entities don’t pay, they’ll be in the “slow lane” and load times affect bottom lines. ISPs also could block the websites of competitors. Who’s to say businesses couldn’t pay to do the same thing — look at what’s been happening with Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown requests.

Local News/Public Access Channels. Local news keeps us engaged, connected and informed; it will be the collateral damage from the Federal Communications Commission vote. Paid prioritization will favor large, wealthy news organizations and conglomerates that focus on national news. Locally-produced online news content will become more expensive, so the result will be less quality and less diversity in community reporting – if local news agencies can pay for the “fast lane”. If they cannot, local news will be buried in the “slow lane.” This will leave us less informed about the issues facing our community, and less civically engaged. For example, High Five Access Media produces digital content for nonprofits, live streams town meetings and local high school sports, produces a show highlighting community events and archives this content for the community to watch online at their leisure. A free and open internet makes this possible. Paid prioritization is a real concern for High Five Access Media because maintaining this level of production and access will come at a price that may not be sustainable.

What can you do? If you support an open internet without blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization — contact your local and state representatives. Tell them your concerns and that you want to see legislation supporting an open internet. Also, start talking to your town representatives — let’s get the conversation started about locally-run internet access, which 85 percent of Eagle County voted for.

Remember - ISPs are not making any promises to treat web traffic equally. So, if the content you want to read or watch starts loading slow, it might not be the websites’ or streaming services’ fault — it could be your ISP. And maybe, if you’re lucky, you can switch to another provider who could do the same thing.

Find out more about what’s happening now: Lawsuits, Legislation, and Executive Orders.

Tegan Davis is a member of the High Five Access Media board of directors. She is PR Librarian for the Eagle Valley Library District.