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Students Can't Afford to Lose Net Neutrality

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As a library media specialist at a public high school in Chicago, I shuddered when the Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 to end "net neutrality" last December. As a result of that decision, internet providers now have the ability to limit users’ access to certain sites. Some critics of the redaction are afraid it will impinge on the speed at which many people navigate the web, meaning those who pay more for services will have more (and faster) access.

Why should this matter to educators? In our current inequitable education system, students across the country may have different levels of access based on what their school or district can afford. I have worked in three public high schools in Chicago, all of which had varying degrees of technology available for students to use. At my current school, the number of functioning computers pales in comparison to the resources in well-to-do suburbs nearby. Although it’s true that many of my students don’t have a computer or device to take home, once students are online, internet access and content has been more or less equal—until now.

In mid-January, several groups filed lawsuits against the FCC in an attempt to restore net neutrality, with results pending. Dozens of Democratic senators are also working on restoration. It’s hard to predict exactly how the ruling could change our lives, but if internet providers begin selling internet packages and websites the same way cable TV companies do, students in wealthier districts will most likely have access to a wider array of content and tools to aid them in their learning at a faster speed than students in low-income districts. Future users of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter could have to pay in order to post or read information.

But what is equally troubling is the fact that such a system may have the power to limit students' voices.

The Threat to Inclusive Movements

In recent years, many of my lessons for students about the internet have had to do with flagging and understanding its bias. Trusting websites has become more difficult in the age of fake news, and I teach students to analyze their online sources for reputable information and biased opinions presented as truth. But I also teach them how the internet can be a catalyst for change and the spread of new ideas.

The #MeToo movement, which has fostered awareness about the prevalence of sexual assault, is one example. The movement's roots go back more than a decade, when a woman named Tarana Burke started a MySpace page to support women and girls of color who were victims of sexual assault. When the actress Alyssa Milano popularized the movement on Twitter by turning it into a hashtag, more than 4.7 million people engaged in a #MeToo conversation within the first 24 hours of Milano's tweet. How would this have played out if MySpace or Twitter charged for access—or only allowed content to be created and viewed by certain people?

Similarly, in 2013, the Black Lives Matter movement began on Facebook. Activist Alicia Garza included the words in a post responding to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, a neighborhood-watch volunteer who shot and killed Trayvon Martin, an unarmed black teenager. The event reignited national debates about race and civil rights, and by 2016, the hashtag had been tweeted 30 million times.

At my high school, where 95 percent of students are minorities, many of our students have gained solace in these movements and contributed their own thoughts online. Students often wear Black Lives Matter apparel to school and have participated in protests. They’ve also begun to have conversations about sexual assault and harassment, echoing voices from the #MeToo movement.

Students are learning from adults—and from the web—how to organize using online resources and make their voices heard. With access to a free and fair internet, they can easily become part of a movement, or even create their own, at a young age.

But what would the reach of these movements have been if there were limitations on the access to, and the creation of, their content? What will happen to future students who want to use these platforms to create movements for change and social justice causes?

Making All Voices Heard

As the issue to restore net neutrality moves to the courts and the Senate, I have hope that lawmakers will reverse the decision. In the Senate, there is a reversal bill with bipartisan support very close to reaching the floor for a vote. Only a few more senators need to sign on to make it happen.

In a recent nationwide poll conducted by the University of Maryland, 75 percent of Republicans, 89 percent of Democrats, and 86 percent of independents stated that they were in favor of net neutrality. We as educators should seize this moment to advocate fair access for our students by writing letters and calling senators and representatives.

The concerns of individual consumers have been put at the forefront of the debate. But teachers, who are preparing the adults of tomorrow, should have more say. Our students also deserve a voice in this conversation, and it shouldn’t have to come from a hashtag. Future generations deserve equal access to platforms that amplify all voices, not just those who can afford to pay the most.

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