School librarians have always faced a daunting challenge when it comes to selecting books to fill the shelves of their libraries. Of course, any book they select must meet the demands of district curricula, but there are other considerations as well: Does the book match the interests and needs of the student? Is the reading level appropriate? Is the author truly an authority on the subjects he or she covers? Do the publishers have a good reputation? Is the material timely? Is the content accurate? Does the book have literary merit? Is the information between the covers well organized?
If a class is assigned a particular topic for research, the librarian will scour the stacks for the best material for students to consider. When students from that class enter the library, they may discover that a cart or a counter has been set aside with these books on display for more convenient access. The school librarian takes pride in offering the best material to facilitate quality research.
Compare that to the considerations of a retail bookstore owner, especially those of the better-heeled bookstore chains. The tables with attractively arranged books that greet customers do not necessarily find their place of privilege for their academic or literary merit.
Store managers have an additional consideration: has the publisher paid us to put this book on display? Bookstores must make a profit, and charging publishers to give certain books a place of prominence is a business decision. But for a librarian to accept money to promote favored books would be scandalous.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulations put into place in 2015, known as net neutrality, ensured the internet would behave a little more like your school librarian and a little less like a retail bookstore manager. While search engines such as Google have an impact on which websites come up first in a search, an internet service provider (ISP) such as Comcast, Time-Warner or Verizon could not accept a fee to change what we see on the internet. Sometimes called the internet’s freedom of speech, net neutrality fosters an ability to communicate freely across the internet without discrimination against certain websites, applications or content.
But on Dec. 14, the FCC voted to approve a controversial plan to repeal net neutrality protections. With net neutrality, anyone who has access to the internet has access to the same content at the same relative speed. Users have the ability to upload, download and share that content. Without net neutrality, ISPs can decide what you can and cannot access online. From there, your ISP can determine what goes in the internet’s “fast lane” or “slow lane.” The fast lane will likely contain paid, sponsored and possibly less relevant content. Unpaid, unsponsored and possibly more relevant content may be relegated to the slow lane and, in some cases, blocked.
The American Library Association notes that Comcast owns NBC Universal. A student engaged in research may find himself or herself in the express lanes to NBC Learn with no exits to PBS LearningMedia. Both websites may have content of value for the student, but the student and the student’s teachers should determine what best serves the student’s needs, not a for-profit corporation seeking more eyeballs on its pages.
Without net neutrality, ISPs may create different tiers of access for websites, denying students and educators access to materials if they cannot afford the cost. ISPs could also restrict access to school websites, making it harder for educators and students to access their own schools’ websites. Students, educators, and schools in rural and underserved areas might have only one ISP in their area and have no recourse if the provider blocks access to some sites for commercial gain.
A testing company could make deals with ISPs so that its computer-based test is delivered at the highest speed, while its competition is slowed down. States and districts would find themselves with only one choice. The same could be true for school management systems.
The fate of net neutrality may end up being decided in court. New York State Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has vowed to lead a multistate lawsuit to reverse the FCC’s decision.
Here in New Jersey, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano has introduced a bill, A-5257, which would establish the New Jersey Net Neutrality Act. While the act could not overrule the FCC, it would require a high level of transparency from ISPs operating in the state. A-5257 would require ISPs to post their prioritization policies online, so that customers can compare costs, prioritization policies and connectivity speeds of ISPs within the state.
At the federal level, under the Congressional Review Act, the U.S. Congress could vote to invalidate the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality and prevent a similar repeal in the future. While passage in the Senate, with only a narrow Republican majority is possible, it faces longer odds in the House of Representatives.
Visit actioncenter.njea.org to write to Sen. Bob Menendez, Sen. Cory Booker and your member of Congress asking them to vote to reverse the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. But don’t stop there, call them and encourage others you know to call them too. The contact information for all members of Congress can be found at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov. Don’t forget to share this information on a still open internet.
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