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Net Neutrality: Why It Matters to School Librarians.

Net Neutrality is the concept that Internet service providers (ISP) must treat all Internet content equally "regardless of its kind., source, or destination" (Merriam-Webster, n.d.). Under Net Neutrality, ISPs were not allowed to speed up, slow down, favor, or block Internet traffic.

Net Neutrality protections were created in 2015 by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), an independent government agency that oversees and enforces communications laws and regulations for state, national, and international communications via radio, television, cable, wire, and satellite (FCC, n.d). Under its 2015 "Open Internet Order," the FCC changed the classification of ISPs from "information services" to "telecommunication services." With that change, Internet service providers became "common carriers," public utilities like phone companies that cannot charge different rates for carrying the same content. The "Open Internet Order" prevented the creation of "slow lanes" and "fast lanes" for Internet traffic. This reclassification occurred because, under a lawsuit brought by Verizon in 2014, a federal court struck down the ability of the FCC to impose Net Neutrality aspects of antiblocking and antislowing on information services (McArdle, 2015).


Never a fan of Net Neutrality, FCC chairman Ajit Pai, designated chair of the commission by President Trump in January 2017, signaled early in his term his intent to dismantle Net Neutrality protections. In May 2017, the FCC issued "Restoring Internet Freedom Notice of Proposed Rulemaking." Its purpose was to "restore the Internet to a light-touch regulatory framework" and to change broadband Internet service back to an "information service" (FCC, 2017).

The news that the FCC intended to reverse Net Neutrality created huge reactions by advocates who wanted Internet activity to continue with all information, content, websites, and services treated equally. The FCC received 21.8 million comments, most protesting the rule change, but a controversy over millions of duplicate messages sent by spambots caused Ajit Pai to announce that the FCC would consider only those that "introduced new facts into the record or made serious legal arguments" (Romano, 2017). In addition to comments, there were protests against the impending FCC action. On July 12, 2017, the American Library Association (ALA) and nearly two hundred other organizations participated in "Day of Action," an online protest to save Net Neutrality (ALA, 2017).

On December 14, 2017, FCC commissioners revoked Network Neutrality rules by a 3-2 vote. As a result, ISPs can now legally offer "tiered service" favoring some websites, services, and applications with faster connections, blocking others, or charging some con tent providers greater fees to connect to their customers (Fung, 2017). This is the "fast lane" and "slow lane" concept. Under the new FCC order, ISPs are required to reveal their service provisions to customers, but transparency does not mean equitable access. Transparency is only feasible when there is a viable marketplace where customers such as schools can select service from a company that better reflects their needs. A deeper issue that consumers face, however, is the nebulous nature of the Internet. Even if a consumer's direct ISP is not filtering traffic, other steps in the connection between the consumer and the content being accessed may cause a problem.

Regardless of the vote, this issue is not over. Political discourse, legal action, and active advocacy will continue. The FCC's actions are expected to trigger legal challenges. On the day of the vote, the New York State Office of the Attorney General (2017) announced that it will spearhead a multistate lawsuit to fight the elimination of Net Neutrality rules.

ALA and other advocates will continue to work toward restoration of Net Neutrality. ALA president Jim Neal asserts,

Teachers, librarians and students in K-12 schools have benefited enormously from effective and equitable access to Internet resources, applications, educational materials, and communities of learning. The dismantling of Net Neutrality places this educational innovation at risk, as the speed and quality of access is eroded, and all ideas and perspectives are not treated equally, (personal communication, December 28, 2017)


Although there is considerable speculation, the full impact of the end of Net Neutrality for schools and school libraries is unknown at this time and may remain so for many months. Robert Bocher, senior fellow for ALA's Office for Information Technology Policy, notes that broadband providers and ISPs can now legally make decisions regarding the content that is carried on their networks related to its speed and cost (personal communication, December 31, 2017). This changes the role of both a school and library's ISPs and all of the interconnected networks from being neutral carriers of content to potentially being gatekeepers of content. This change could be direct--slowing down or even blocking content based on provider or topic--or more indirect--with information content providers charging schools and libraries to recoup costs imposed by their ISP or other network providers.

Marijke Visser, associate director for the Office for Information Technology Policy at the ALA Washington office, provided some insight into the effect for schools. A major concern is whether educational content will be slowed down so ISPs can give preferential treatment in a "fast lane" to content that will give them greater financial return or in which they have ownership. Visser expressed special concern for rural areas, explaining,

If provider X starts throttling [slowing] content for a school, then the school would have no other option but to move its business to another ISP that would not throttle school-based content (or content it wanted to use like some YouTube video on chemical compounds or a video from National Geographic on bird migration), (personal communication, December 7, 2017)

Without Net Neutrality, curriculum decisions may be influenced by ISPs. What if ISP X signs a deal with McGraw-Hill to make it the exclusive digital textbook partner? As a result, access to other digital textbooks could be terminated or slowed down. Or perhaps the local ISP makes decisions about which streaming video services will work. These are curriculum decisions that should be made by the school, but because access comes through the ISP, it can intrude upon local decision-making.

An easy solution would be for the school to change to an ISP that would agree not to filter traffic. Unfortunately, in many rural areas, there are often few choices for ISPs, creating a lack of competition. An FCC report from June 2017 found that about 75% of U.S. census block regions have zero choice in terms of high speed Internet/ broadband access (Brodkin, 2017). The FCC has claimed that market competition will provide a check on potential ISP abuse. "Given the extent of competition in Internet access supply," the FCC's (2017) new order states, "the protections regulating ISPs are not necessary" (p. 144). Despite the frequent claims of competition throughout the document, the statistics included by the FCC show that competition is not as widespread as it would like to claim.

Cost is also a factor. Consortium on School Networking (CoSN) CEO Keith Krueger alluded to costs when he asked FCC commissioners to consider how dismantling Net Neutrality rules will affect schools. He posed the question, "Will school districts be stuck with the bill for higher transport costs levied on digital content providers?" (CoSN, 2017). He was concerned that, under the new FCC order, requiring ISPs to disclose their pricing and practices does nothing to protect schools from higher carriage fees charged by ISPs to licensed educational content providers, such as reference databases, and then passed along to schools (personal communication, December 16, 2017). In other words, even if the school's direct service provider is completely transparent about not charging the school, any other provider in the chain between the school and the content provider could be imposing fees that result in a higher cost to the school.

Scott Floyd, chief technology officer for White Oak ISD in Texas, articulates the uncertainty for districts like his,

The ISPs will have the power to decide who they allow full access and who they do not. Sadly, it will all revolve around who is paying for the extra usage and who isn't. Does that mean Google tools like Hangout or Microsoft's Skype will be slowed? Only time will tell, but there will be no rules in place protecting those tools and keeping the bandwidth constant for everyone. In the end, the dollar makes the decision, (personal communication, December 4, 2017)


Solutions for schools facing a future without Net Neutrality are not plentiful and favor those with strength in numbers of districts, large and small, banding together into groups to create leverage. Krueger sees regional or statewide educational networking consortia as one potential solution:

Those schools and libraries that are from larger organizations and/ or can aggregate their purchasing power through cooperative purchasing are likely to be best protected in this new world. State education networks, RENs, and state contracts are all likely to be able to better protect rural schools and libraries, (personal communication, December 16, 2017)

He recommends that those with market choices work toward contracts that "prohibit blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization--in other words, embedding Net Neutrality in their contracts. "

In rural regions, municipal broadband may be a strong possibility, but the same companies that fought hard to kill Net Neutrality are also trying to block this potential solution. Currently there are battles in many state legislatures to prevent the creation of municipal broadband providers that offer competition to established ISPs, and more than 20 states ban or limit municipal broadband networks (Chang, 2016). School districts, especially smaller or rural districts, may need to collaborate on contracts or work with local municipalities or public libraries to gain sufficient bargaining power to dictate favorable terms.


With Net Neutrality eliminated, Internet users in K-12 schools face an abridgement of their intellectual freedom. Under Net Neutrality, ISPs were required to treat all Internet traffic equitably, reflecting the principal of nondiscrimination. Because the 2015 "Internet Open Order" was revoked and replaced by the ironically titled "Internet Freedom Order," ISPs and broadband providers can now differentiate among Internet content, and their "tiered access" systems can prioritize digital speech for fast delivery, delay, or blocking. As a result, the full spectrum of diverse speech (including educational content) is curtailed for anyone seeking to express or receive ideas.

One of the major purposes of schools is to educate students for their future roles as citizens or residents of a democratic society. Students learn information-literacy skills including discerning between fact and opinion. Schools provide Internet access for students' instruction, information seeking, and learning. When there are barriers to the provision of Internet service such as blocking legal content or dramatically increasing the cost of access, it affects students' ability to access online content and learn what is needed, putting U.S. democracy at risk.

Neal saw the threat to reverse Net Neutrality and asked the ALA Intellectual Freedom Committee (IFC) to write a position statement considering the "intellectual freedom implications of the efforts to set aside Net Neutrality" (personal communication, July 13, 2017). Between July 2017 and February 2018, an IFC working group created the statement laying out the arguments for the ways Net Neutrality is an intellectual freedom issue and requesting comment from the library community. In February 2018, ALA Council approved "Network Neutrality: An Intellectual Freedom Issue" as an official statement of the ALA. The full statement is available on the ALA website (


The ALA and partner organizations will continue to apply political pressure until Net Neutrality is restored. School librarians can play an active role, and it begins with being well informed on current political, legal, and advocacy efforts. There are two key information sources, and anyone may use them. Register to receive the ALA Washington Office's District Dispatch, a weekly e-newsletter with information on library and education federal legislation and updates on Net Neutrality ( Subscribe to the Intellectual Freedom News, a free weekly compilation of articles on a range of intellectual freedom issues including Net Neutrality on the OIF Blog web page ( by entering your email address. The next step is becoming an active advocate for Net Neutrality. Educate colleagues, students, administrators, school board members, and parents about Net Neutrality and what its loss means to schools and communities. Mobilize local support to respond when needed and to contact senators and representatives relating personal stories of the realities of no Network Neutrality rules.


Net Neutrality is a difficult concept to explain with esoteric policy language from the FCC and other federal agencies. To make things more challenging, the Internet didn't-appear to change on December 14when the FCC ended Net Neutrality. The ramifications discussed in this article outline the possibilities experts are concerned may happen now that protections are gone. The problem will be identifying what, if anything, is being done by ISPs behind the scenes. This determination will likely require the collection of data over time to provide evidence of slowdowns for some content or in some locations. Individuals can help by participating in independent speed tests like those conducted by Measurement Lab at


American Library Association (ALA). (2017). July 12 day of action to save Net Neutrality. Retrieved from

Brodkin, J. (2017). 50 million US homes have only one 25Mbps Internet provider or none at all. Retrieved from 50-million-ushomes-have-only-one-25mbps-internet-provider-or-none-at-all/

Chang, R. (2016). Laws prohibit or restrict municipal broadband networks in 20-plus states. Retrieved from https:// laws-prohibit-or-restrict-local-governments-from-building-broadbandnetworks.aspx/

Consortium on School Networking (CoSN). (2017). CoSN: Aggressive Net Neutrality plan raises questions for schools. Retrieved from neutrality-plan-raises-troubling-questions-schools/

Federal Communications Commission (FCC). (n.d.). About the FCC. Retrieved from

Federal Communications Commission (FCC). (2017). Restoring Internet freedom notice of proposed rulemaking. Retrieved from

Fung, B. (2017). The FCC just voted to repeal its Net Neutrality rules, in a sweeping act of deregulation. Retrieved from https://www. the-fcc-is-expected-to-repeal-itsnet-neutrality-rules-today-in-asweeping-act-of-deregulation/?utm_ term=.7c140e 19d5a6/

McArdle, J. (2015). Internet providers are now common carriers: What does that mean for you? Retrieved from internet-providersare-now-common-carriers-whatdoes-that-mean-for-you/

Merriam-Webster, (n.d.) Net Neutrality. Retrieved from https://www.merriam-webster. com/dictionary/net%20neutrality/.

New York State Office of the Attorney General. (2017). Press release: A. G. Schneiderman: I will sue to stop the illegal rollback of Net Neutrality. Retrieved from https: //

Romano, A. (2017). The FCC asked for Net Neutrality opinions, then rejected most of them. Retrieved from

Helen R. Adams, MLS, is an online senior lecturer for Antioch University--Seattle in the areas of intellectual freedom, privacy, ethics, and copyright. A Wisconsin resident, she formerly worked as a school librarian and served as president of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL). She is chair of the American Library Association Intellectual Freedom Committee and a member of the AASL Knowledge Quest Advisory Board. She authored Protecting Intellectual Freedom and Privacy in Your School Library (2013) and co-contributed a chapter on intellectual freedom to the second edition of The Many Faces of School Library Leadership (2017).

Christopher Harris is the director of the School Library System for the Genesee Valley Educational Partnership, serving 22 small, rural school districts in western New York. He also serves as a fellow for Youth and Technology Policy Issues with the American Library Association Office for Information Technology Policy. He is the author of the Teaching Through Games series (2015) and the activities for the Spotlight on Kids Can Code interactive ebooks (2016). He can be reached at
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Title Annotation:FEATURE ARTICLE
Author:Adams, Helen R.; Harris, Christopher
Publication:Teacher Librarian
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2018
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