IT Infrastructure & Management

Perceived Threat to Net Neutrality Sparks Furor

By Sean Cavanagh — November 12, 2014 6 min read
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Federal officials are moving closer toward setting policies that could affect net neutrality, a high-stakes consideration that has generated impassioned responses from educators and from entrepreneurs trying to bring new technological resources into schools.

The Federal Communications Commission has been weighing proposals for most of the year that would set parameters for neutrality—the idea that content should flow in an equal and unrestricted way across the Internet—while also weighing the demands of service providers who say they should have the right to earn more for delivering faster or heavier bandwidth content.

In May, the FCC put forward a plan that many school officials complained would give Internet service providers too much power to assign content to fast or slow delivery lanes. The agency asked for public input on the proposal, and what came was a deluge: 3.7 million comments have poured in so far. It’s a record response, according to the FCC, which has not said when it will announce a final verdict on net neutrality.

Many classroom educators rely on receiving free access to online videos and other content for curriculum and instruction—and now fear that their access to Web-based resources will be cut off or slowed if Internet service providers get their way.

“Open access to the Internet is liberating to educators in many ways,” Becky Fisher, the director of educational technology, professional development, and media services for the Ablemarle County, Va., school district, said in an interview. “To think that somebody sitting in a corporate office could take us back [to an earlier era] is really a step backwards.”

Worries about erosion of net neutrality have also rankled leaders of companies and organizations that count on being able to deliver educational content to teachers and schools quickly. One is OpenCurriculum, a Silicon Valley-based nonprofit that offers a vehicle for teachers to create and circulate lessons among their peers.

If net neutrality were to be diminished, OpenCurriculum would not be able to pay fees that telecommunications providers might charge for faster Internet access, Varun Arora, the organization’s CEO, said in comments to the FCC. Larger companies would be able to deliver content at “blazing speeds,” he added, while his access to audiences would suffer.

Big media companies would be “given an advantage on the only medium for us to reach and serve [our] customers—the Internet,” wrote Mr. Arora.

Internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast have said those fears are overblown. They argue they should be given the right to recoup the costs of delivering bandwidth-intensive content—movies delivered via Netflix are often cited as an example—and that they should be able to charge more for delivering fast or specialized content to consumers.

Web Commerce

The White House has said it opposes “paid prioritization” of content. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former technology-company executive and cable-industry lobbyist who was appointed by President Barack Obama, has vowed to defend an open Internet and the public’s and schools’ unrestricted access to content.

“We are not about to let anyone ... disadvantage schools by playing around with the ability of schools to get open access to everything that’s on the Internet,” Mr. Wheeler told Education Week in an interview in July.

The net-neutrality issue was brought to the FCC’s door most recently when a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia in January ruled that the agency did not have the authority to prevent telecommunications providers from blocking or otherwise discriminating against certain content providers. The decision in that case, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Verizon, was widely viewed as a setback for net neutrality.

Rather than appealing the ruling, Mr. Wheeler moved to craft rules designed to stand up in court and provide consumers and content providers with a fair marketplace. The notice of proposed rulemaking released by the FCC last spring would have given Internet service providers the right to make deals to deliver faster content, as long as they were deemed “commercially reasonable” by the agency. The FCC also proposed making those arrangements transparent to the public, and preserving an open Internet for consumers.

Yet that proposal drew a hostile reaction from many consumer advocates, who predicted it would result in the creation of fast and slow lanes for content delivery. Many of those critics have urged Mr. Wheeler to assert the FCC’s authority under Title II of the federal Telecommunications Act to regulate broadband in the same way the agency does phone service, a step that consumer advocates, and some school officials, believe would give it greater power to prevent Internet service providers from playing favorites in the speed of service.

Despite its inherent wonkiness, the debate over net neutrality has rocketed into popular culture.

The late-night television comedian John Oliver, for instance, recently devoted a segment of his program to railing against the perceived threat to an open Internet. The host of “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver” exhorted viewers, in a now widely circulated clip, to defend net neutrality through public comments to the FCC.

“Focus your indiscriminate rage in a useful direction!” Mr. Oliver urged his audience.

The FCC has not said when it will release a final policy, though many observers think it will be soon.

Not all comments flowing into the FCC look favorably on the agency taking a stronger role in protecting net neutrality.

“Regulating the Internet is the first step in regulating the people who use it,” wrote a commenter, one of several using a pseudonym that included the word “schools.”

Speed of Delivery

Another commenter using the schools moniker argued that government oversight of the Internet “has always been a solution in search of a problem,” and that the FCC “is no longer acting in the interests of the American people.”

Others, however, are pressing the FCC to ensure that nothing impedes the flow of content to schools.

Zach Sims, the CEO of Codeacademy, a New York City-based company that provides Web-based training in computer programming to consumers and students, noted that entrepreneurs already face myriad barriers to bringing online resources to K-12 systems. Those include restrictions on videos students can watch and the overall diffuse nature of the education market, said Mr. Sims, who submitted comments backing net neutrality.

School systems are “fragmented and hard to get into,” Mr. Sims said in an interview. “The challenge is worse when you have to pay more to provide reliable service.”

Jean Basquez, a special education teacher at Laytonsville Elementary School, in the 400-student Laytonsville Unified school system in California, said she counts on online videos—from movie clips to news segments from CNN—to engage students. Those resources are easier to access and update than traditional texts, which “don’t differentiate enough,” Ms. Basquez said. She told the FCC as much, in comments to the agency.

“You have to be able to find things to get [students’] attention,” Ms. Basquez said in an interview. “Visuals are big, [audio] is big, ... [and] I want it to be available when I want it.”

A version of this article appeared in the November 12, 2014 edition of Education Week as Perceived Threat to Net Neutrality Sparks Furor

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