Over the past 24 months, we have started to hear more about the concept of “net neutrality.” Net neutrality, a concept coined by Columbia law professor Tim Wu more than a decade ago, refers to the principle that all data that circulates on the Internet should be treated equally. This means that no service provider (e.g., Time Warner or Verizon) will ever have the right to slow the speed of uploads or downloads or block specific types of data (or data originating from specific IP addresses) nor will any service provider ever have the right to deliver certain content to subscribers more quickly (e.g., Time Warner will never be able to enter into a special arrangement with Amazon or Netflix in order to deliver their content through a faster conduit).
Not surprisingly, the ACLU has come out as one of the strongest advocates of net neutrality. In typically blunt fashion, the ACLU explains the concept this way: “Imagine if the phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order pizza from Domino’s because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first.” The ACLU’s concerns, of course, are also more serious. If Internet content becomes subject to different speeds and rates, then, it also becomes increasingly subject to surveillance and our privacy rights will be eroded along with net neutrality. On this basis, net neutrality is about more than keeping the Internet a fair playing field for all users and all content providers—it is also about keeping the Internet free of censorship.
This is precisely why over 4 million Americans wrote to the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) in 2014 to 2015 expressing their support for net neutrality; the writers emphasized that net neutrality promotes the “common good” and must, therefore, be preserved. President Obama agreed and in early 2015, the FCC, at his urging, voted to preserve net neutrality. So why does net neutrality remain a hot topic in early 2016, and what are its potential implications for the future of e-learning?
Ongoing Challenges to Net Neutrality
Despite Obama’s and the FCC’s strong ruling in favor of net neutrality in 2015, the net neutrality debate is far from over and will remain a controversial issue in 2016 and in the coming election campaign. First, there is the ongoing backlash from ISPs (internet service providers) who maintain they are not common carriers and therefore don’t need to abide by the FCC’s 2015 ruling. Second, and perhaps more importantly, some providers, including several major service providers (e.g., Comcast, T-Mobile, and AT&T) have started to offer advantages that circumvent data caps. In short, while many service providers currently use data caps, some providers are now exempting some data from these data caps (e.g., T-Mobile’s “Binge On” service offers customers a way to keep streaming beyond caps). What are the implications? If some ISPs are exempt from the FCC’s ruling and service providers continue to deregulate certain content in relation to their own data caps, net neutrality will exist in theory but effectively not exist in practice.
Where to the Presidential Candidates Stand on Net Neutrality?
In addition to the aforementioned challenges, the soon-to-change political leadership of the nation will potentially also have a profound impact on the future of net neutrality. To begin to consider where just a few of our presidential candidates stand on the issue:
Hillary Clinton: “Enforcing strong net neutrality rules and preempting state laws that unfairly protect incumbent businesses — will keep more money in consumers’ wallets, enable startups to challenge the status quo, and allow small businesses to thrive.”
Bernie Sanders: “The Internet should be free and open, and Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks equally—without prioritizing some customers, sites or services over others.”
Donald Trump: “Obama’s attack on the internet is another top-down power grab. Net neutrality is the Fairness Doctrine. Will target conservative media.”
Marco Rubio: “The Federal Communications Commission’s recent 332-page plan to regulate the Internet is being sold as “net neutrality,” which is an existing concept predicated on preventing Internet service providers from creating “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for different content. But there are several significant problems. First, while the FCC plan supposedly seeks to prevent ISPs from playing favorites, it does so by giving that power to another entity: government…Second, the issue of ISPs creating different speed lanes is not the injustice that it is made out to be…Third, the primary function of the FCC’s plan goes far beyond the goal of net neutrality. It would use Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 to label Internet service providers as public utilities.”
Ted Cruz: “In short, net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.”
Jeb Bush: “The Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rule classifies all Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as ‘public utilities,’ subjecting them to antiquated ‘common carrier’ regulation,”
What do these statements reveal? While they don’t reveal much yet, these statements do remind us that depending on the outcome of the Democrat and Republican nomination races and more importantly, the upcoming election, net neutrality could end up being either reinforced or further eroded.
What Would the Erosion of Net Neutrality Mean for e-Learning?
Over the past two decades, e-learning has emerged as a democratic means to deliver high-quality education and training to learners across the nation regardless of their location. Net neutrality is central to e-Learning on two key levels:
First and foremost, learning management systems, whether they are used on campus or in a work environment for training purposes, must be free of censorship. After all, depending on the content of the course or training module, it may be necessary to stream materials that could, in some contexts, be subject to censorship. Net neutrality enables educators and trainers to stream the content required to deliver high-quality online education and training regardless of the content.
A key to the success of learning management systems has been the fact that whether they are small or large, they have been able to deliver educational materials to students on a more or less level playing field. With the erosion of net neutrality, this could change. After all, while a provider might make exceptions for data streamed from Netflix, HBO or Hulu so users don’t exceed their monthly data caps, content streamed from educational providers will likely not be exempted from these caps. In essence, this means that while one may be able to freely stream their favorite television program, streaming educational materials will essentially come at a price (at least to the extent that it will deplete one’s monthly data). If this is the future, the impacts on e-learning can’t be ignored.
While there is no reason to be immediately concerned, there is ample reason for anyone with a stake in e-learning’s future to keep a close watch on net neutrality. What’s at risk, after all, is potentially both access to opinions from a wide range of political perspectives and Internet access itself. If net neutrality is lost, we may be faced with a new digital divide–sadly, just as the original digital divide is finally starting to close.
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