net-neutrality-rights

Why higher education should care about Net Neutrality


Broadband for education expert gives four reasons why the FCC’s decision about Internet service is a human rights issue.

net-neutrality-rightsOn February 26th the world, as we know it, will either come to an end or we will have the second coming of the messiah.

Why? Because later this week the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote to reclassify broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service, rather than an information service, under Title II of the Telecommunications Act—a decision which will have a significant impact on education.

With a handful of exceptions, the policy wonks and industry pundits have taken binary positions on the regulation of the Internet, but there is more at stake than the Washington politics and beltway posturing: mainly, the issue of education as a basic human right and how the regulation of the Internet may affect those rights.

Here are at least four reasons—from historical and future-looking perspectives—why educators, students, and school administrators should take interest in the commission’s deliberations and decisions.

1. First principles – The original cyberneticists living and writing in the 1940s (like Wiener, Von Neumann, Turing, Deutsch, Mead and others) all believed that education and distributed and decentralized networks were fundamental to preserving the future of the human race. Having all borne witness to the horrific and catastrophic ills of WW II, their fundamental belief system was that the only way to avoid future destabilization associated with hierarchical and centralized models of economic, social, and political organization was to design networks and reinforce them with more universally accessible education systems. Theories of systemic interdependence and resilience followed, as did the instantiation of those same principles in the early protocols and work of the DARPANet, ARPANet, and research and education networks that pre-dated the commercialization of the Internet in 1993. Many of the cyberneticists, as well as early pioneers of the Internet like Baran, Englebart, Cerf and Kahn, understood the internal logic and tendencies of systems to centralize and agglomerate. The only way to maintain resilient networks that could resist the tendency to centralization was to embed those networks with first principles.

As the current chairman of the FCC has once reasserted, one of those first principles has been that suppliers of access to the network should not be authorized to mediate (privilege or discriminate) on the basis of creating competitive advantage with those providing content or services on those networks. Over time those advantages necessarily trigger individual and organizational behavior that will lead to the centralizing of economic, social, political, and educational privilege, the very dynamic that the architects of the network attempted to mitigate. Most educators will readily understand and embrace this first principle. It is at the heart the democratizing principle that we associate with both our calling as educators and the great hope of the Internet to make access to education both discoverable and accessible without barriers imposed by network providers so as to create competitive advantage.

(Next page: Going to the edge of what’s possible in education)

2. Taking education to the edge of the possible. In the 1950s, theories of modernization had it that the prospects of advancing the educational and material condition of the great masses of people in Africa, Asia, and Latin America were seen as being dependent upon the laying of miles of asphalt roadways and railway ties, and the deployment of transistor radios. The reasoning went that wireless radios would expose otherwise disconnected people to the big world of ideas and learning. Railways and roads would contribute to urbanization which would bring people and their families for education and upward mobility in the labor market.

The power of the network to help change lives is experienced every day in learning moments that unfold online and impacting otherwise marginalized urban city youth, isolated rural students, learning groups from Bangladesh taking physics classes offered by Ivy League schools, or global collaborations for research and/or MOOCs helping to instantiate a real global village of learners. While there is much more work to be done, the Network, more so than any other platform for discovery and learning, has impacted the trajectory and the probable destiny for hundreds of millions of disenfranchised and undereducated persons around the world.

Today, in the U.S., network providers are investing in home security systems and home health systems, and one can well imagine that in the near future some will also invest in one or more online educational offerings. It is important that these network providers not be allowed to support paid prioritization for their invested services (or others). These bundling of services, if they are also given preferential treatment, will create separate and unequal education offerings and limit the competitive environment for educational offerings to the long-term detriment of the public. It is important that our own FCC assure that children and adult learners, whether they live in rural settings, urban cores, or suburban neighborhoods all have a quality connectivity to the Internet from their schools and common access to the full range of learning opportunities, products, and services.

3. Human right. The current FCC position on Network Neutrality joins a small but growing number of other legislatures and regulatory bodies from Chile to Slovenia who have done the same. There is, however, an important global challenge to educators that we should not lose sight of as we observe the debate and litigation unfolding in Washington. There are a growing number of states around the world who are strongly opposed not only to network neutrality in their own countries but to the very idea of an open network. There are strong and strident positions from a global coalition of state players being played out on international stages and regulating forums, like those at the ITU and ICANN which are being led by states seeking to control access to the Network within their countries. The unholy coalition of countries includes those espousing concerns over Western cultural hegemony, domestic terrorism, limits on freedom of speech, and the organizing of anti-government demonstrations. While the Network as we have known and experienced it has been developed to operate on the basis of universal protocols that are not bounded by national borders or sovereignty, the next decade will be decisive as to whether access to the network for education (or any other activity) is a basic entitlement and human right or a privilege accorded only to enlightened states or to the elites of other countries.

In truth, around the world, and here at home, we have lost much of the moral high ground with the disclosures around the NSA activities on information gathering on the Network. The FCC position on Network Neutrality is not directly relevant to how we balance personal freedom and anonymity and, at the same time, the reasonable activities of the state to secure the life, liberty, and property of the broader public. The FCC position on Network Neutrality will not ameliorate the significant and long term negative impact of the unacceptable and most probably illegal activity of our own government. However, the debate and decisions on February 26th do provide an important counterpoint to the distortions that have been allowed to evolve, absent broader federal authority to regulate the network. The reassertion of a regulatory regime around net neutrality will include some checks and balances that should, over time, allow us to restore greater confidence in the belief that private rights and freedom to connect to the network for education is an unalienable human right.

4. Network provider. There is a schism in the education sector about whether the debate in Washington over network neutrality is of material and direct consequence to universities, colleges, schools, and libraries. The library community has been consistent in their support of net neutrality. There is a bit more ambiguity in the formal education sector. Because the education and research communities were early progenitors and adopters of the network, the sector was accorded certain historic special statuses. Education networks are non-profit, as they serve non-profit customers. Education, research, and library networks are eligible for federal grants, federal subsidies, and are also not burdened by much of the regulatory environment that is the reality of the regulated commercial and enterprise networks around the country. As Title II emerges as an inevitability, there are those in the education network community who see the coming regulatory environment as a burden–a challenge to their healthy operating margins–or even an existential threat to their very existence. Education network providers will continue to attempt to make the case that they have unique needs and special customers, and deserve continued special treatment.

As the FCC has now placed both fixed and mobile networks under the new regulatory Title II umbrella, it is not beyond the realm of the possible that specialized and dedicated networks, like those serving the education network market, are candidates for common regulation as are the carriers. The challenge to those in the traditional education network space is to strategically consider not what these networks have represented over the past 40 years, but what they need to be over the next 40 years: What are the true value-added services to support the needs of 21st century learners? We might be surprised to learn, and I expect we will see, new important service lines supplanting the traditional, and likely more regulated, networks across the country.

Educators need to remain vigilant and active to protect their rights and the rights and opportunities of their students to discover, uncover, ponder, and reflect on the full range of challenges facing them and the broader human condition. That is our privilege and responsibility as educators.

For more insight into the Net Neutrality and education debate, read here where I have attempted to provide a framework for making senses of the forthcoming decision.

Lev Gonick is the CEO of OneCommunity, and an adjunct faculty member at Case Western Reserve University.