Net neutrality--it’s a set of rules that makes the web free, ensuring equal treatment for all Internet traffic, regardless of whether one is browsing Khan Academy videos or cat clips.
At present, the rules prevent Internet service providers (ISPs) from showing preferential treatment to content providers of any kind, ensuring that the biggest and smallest of sites on the web are accessible.
But last week, new policies from the Federal Communications Commission could put an end to these protections. The FCC’s newly-unveiled rules will permit ISPs to charge “commercially reasonable” rates to content providers like Netflix for “fast lanes” for better access to their users.
What “commercially reasonable” means is up to anyone’s guess. But by allowing for a “tiered Internet” to exist, the FCC is effectively giving an advantage to content providers that can afford to pay for better access to their users.
For education, this presents a dangerous precedent where the content and tools that schools, teachers, students and learners (of all ages) use may be subject to corporate interests. These new rules are particularly worrisome for educators who constantly fight for budget resources to support technology adoption and rely on web tools as a supplement to instruction in the classroom.
Although many schools heavily filter web content to comply with federal e-rate regulations, the loss of net neutrality would immediately impact:
Free and open source web tools for education that could be edged out by for-profit competitors who can afford to pay for better access to their customers.
Open source textbook adoption initiatives that rely on volunteer work and donations to create content could suffer from lower-tier access in schools.
Wikis and collaborative sites that allow for educators to share content could be edged out by larger resource-sharing sites that can afford to pay for faster access to schools.
School and university libraries that serve as gateways for hard-to-access information, as lesser-used databases and niche research tools for academics would suffer from 3rd party interference from larger publishers.
The FCC’s new rules could effectively create a new kind of digital divide among students, according to this Huffington Post piece:
If schools use an online curriculum made by a company that cut a deal with Verizon, students who subscribe to Verizon's Internet service at home would have an advantage over other students who subscribe to another provider.
The increased costs that some companies will pay to the ISPs will be passed on to consumers, educational institutions and small companies that are already quite cash strapped. Startups looking to compete with incumbent companies also ought to be concerned with how the new rules might affect the competitive playing field in the marketplace.
A faster web for some isn’t an equal web for all, and the rules that favor Internet service providers jeopardize the web’s ability to serve as a platform for free speech and innovation. The implications of these new pay-for-play policies will undoubtedly affect the web’s ability to positively impact education, putting the bests interests and intellectual freedoms of learners and the educators at risk.