What’s the Buzz? – Net Neutrality

5 Jan

The news issue a lot of information professionals and computer professionals are talking about lately is net neutrality.  This concept has been around a fairly long time by internet standards and owes its endurance as a news issue to the unresolved nature of the concept, the lack of clarity in many peoples’ opinions, and the poor regulation of service pertaining to the internet.

Most information professionals are in favor of net neutrality, in a sweeping, cover-all way.  Others like the idea and are in favor of developing the idea more.  I don’t know of a single one who opposes the idea of net neutrality.  But I do think those who are in favor of it for no reason other than the ideological “Everyone should have the same access” are not doing justice to their opinion or the issue.  Those people who hold to any position purely because of ideological stance cannot make a sound argument in the face of detractors, reverting rather to some variant of “But this is how it should be!”; we as professionals do not benefit from presenting ourselves this way, nor do our patrons benefit from having serve them people who do not take time to educate themselves.

My view on net neutrality is that it’s a great idea in principle, but not great in practice.  In more ways than one, it’s much like the health care debate.  Should everyone have access?  Yes.  But in a capitalist society, we pride ourselves on certain privileges that working hard and earning money gets us.  I also think certain institutions have greater right to access than Joe Schmoe sitting on his couch.  An example:  a research university comprising science and math students needs high-speed connectivity that is extremely reliable because their internet access serves a greater purpose than recreation.  Joe Schmoe may purchase better access if he can afford it (the university surely can), but if he is on his 18th week of unemployment and barely making ends meet, I don’t see how his needs merit the same treatment as the university.

Also a problem in this debate is the proposed solution is full of holes.  It doesn’t cover certain types of connectivity, and there are ways for companies to get around the regulations if they meet certain criteria.  Most people seem afraid of tiered service, when that is what we provide as reference.  How many times have librarians prioritized questions at the reference desk, giving those who came in person precedence over emailed or IM requests?  If there is going to be a solution to ISPs giving better service at a higher cost (something inherently capitalistic, although perhaps not best practice), then it needs to be focused and cleaned up, considered and modifiable.

A final thought:  Perhaps net neutrality is the new version of the housing crisis.  We slipped into the wrong mindset with the housing market, believing that everyone is entitled to home ownership when really the inalienable right is that everyone is entitled to housing.  Perhaps not everyone is entitled to amazing access and connectivity, but rather is just entitled to access and connectivity.  That might mean using the local library, or having a connection that is not as fast as the one at that research university.  But at least you’re connected, and that counts for a lot in this Information Age.

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2 Responses to “What’s the Buzz? – Net Neutrality”

  1. Adam January 6, 2011 at 13:15 #

    I’ve found the discourse on Net Neutrality isn’t really about end user access, at least not purely. Most of the arguments, and the most recent FCC rules, are about how carriers/network providers classify and transport data. Many backbone networks, a la Verizon, AT&T, etc are arguing a few points:
    1.) They should be able to prioritize data based on a fee structure. This means that If Google doesn’t pay a premium to Verizon, their content is given a lower quality of service. This sort of structure would allow content providers who also own networks (i.e. Time Warner) to degrade the experience of pure services (youtube, NetFilx, etc) so that their customers would rather get and pay for their content through their own services. The most interesting part of this is that the network providers are suggesting that the providers, not the consumers, need to pay this fee structure, which is good in a way because it demonstrates that they believe in some way that data is data to the user no matter where they get it (which it is).
    2.) In the absence of the ability to classify all data, Verizon and AT&T in particular are arguing the Mobile data should be treated as a entity independent from the “Internet”. This would allow them to continue to close off their mobile environments and box out content providers. I suspect, this has more to do with VoIP providers eating away from the mobile providers voice minutes cash pot than anything. But, no doubt, with Verizon already providing mobile TV, video and music they’d like to keep youtube/amazon/iStore/netflix/etc at bay.

  2. Torra January 12, 2011 at 15:56 #

    I think mobile access provides a gray area that complicates the issue. It needs to be addressed, yes, but first wouldn’t we benefit from having some structure in place as a framework? Or should policy makers take a more forward-thinking approach and try to hammer out not only the current issue, but future potential pitfalls as well?

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