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NEA News

What Net Neutrality Means for Students and Educators

The recent FCC decision to uphold net neutrality rules is an important win for schools, says president of the American Library Association.
Published: March 11, 2015

Group Of Students Working At Computers In ClassroomThe Federal Communications Commission voted recently to enforce "net neutrality." With this important decision, Internet service providers will not be able to block or slow down traffic, give priority to Web services who can afford to pay for it, or limit content options by pricing out small or startup information providers.

The American Library Association (ALA) has been a leading proponent of the net neutrality principle. NEA Today asked its president Courtney Young to explain the impact the new rules will have on students and public education.

Two students are researching a paper – one with net neutrality, and one without. How are their experiences different?

Courtney Young: An individual student is connected to a single Internet service provider (ISP), which becomes the gateway through which the student must connect to gain access to millions of web pages, platforms and services.

Gina—with an open Internet connection—is free to choose whatever information or resources she likes from small, highly specialized content providers or large global corporations, no matter which ISP she uses and no matter if she is using fixed or mobile broadband.

Stan, the student without an open Internet, might be blocked from accessing resources that compete with content offered by his ISP. For example, Comcast merged with NBC Universal several years ago. So, if Stan uses Comcast to access the Internet, he might be redirected to NBC Learn when he was trying to get PBS content. Or perhaps a commercial distributor of primary source materials had made a deal with Verizon to expedite its content. Stan might have to wait for a sluggish download of open educational resources versus getting super-fast access to the commercial content.

These are hypothetical examples, but broadband ISPs have financial incentives to favor some content over others. The ALA believes that network neutrality is essential to ensuring a fair and equal online experience. Once you pay for your Internet access, you should be the one to choose the content, websites and applications you want to access—not your ISP.

What would change in our public and school libraries if there were a slow lane and a fast lane for different kinds of information?

The central issue with “paid prioritization”—where one content provider pays for a ‘fast lane’—is that those with the greatest financial resources will be best able to speed their content to all who use that provider. This would hurt small startups and public or non-profit content providers (like libraries) that can’t afford to buy a ‘fast lane’ for our educational, research, archival or other digital collections. Content providers that pay more for a fast lane also may pass this extra charge onto consumers, so it also could mean libraries and schools – already facing budget troubles – would end up paying more for some commercial content than they pay today.

ALA Immediate Past President Barbara Stripling, a school librarian, phrased it well in a Wired op-ed: “We must ensure the same quality access to online educational content as to entertainment and other commercial offerings. But without net neutrality, we are in danger of prioritizing Mickey Mouse and Jennifer Lawrence over William Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt. This may maximize profits for large content providers, but it minimizes education for all.”

How would it impact lessons for educators who incorporate technology into their classrooms?

If the teacher is relying on Web tools to supplement classroom instruction, it’s possible some content would load more quickly than others if there was a deal for prioritized access via the school’s ISP. This could have the impact of “demoting” free, open-source and collaborative tools in favor of tools from for-profit competitors as educators choose the resources that will be more readily and reliably available.

Students often find creative ways to express themselves and experiment with online technology. How would the end of net neutrality impact them?

It could reduce the number of startups able to distribute and innovate as the costs for reaching audiences online grows. How many of our students—even in middle or high school—are creating and sharing digital content or even creating new online businesses? The end of net neutrality would make it more difficult for “little guys” to break in to what has been one of the most dynamic and democratic platforms ever created.

How does preserving net neutrality help to preserve free speech?

Most simply, if an ISP is able to block, degrade or prioritize some content over others, the internet service provider is the one making the decision about what you will access online. Let’s go back to Stan and say he is researching the pros and cons of the pending merger of Comcast with Time Warner Cable, and Comcast is his ISP. Comcast might block him from accessing, but allow him to visit sites in favor of the merger. Stan would come away from his research without all the facts and possible without knowing his online options had been limited.

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The National Education Association (NEA), the nation's largest professional employee organization, is committed to advancing the cause of public education. NEA's 3 million members work at every level of education—from pre-school to university graduate programs. NEA has affiliate organizations in every state and in more than 14,000 communities across the United States.