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American Library Association Wants Network Neutrality

Carrie Lowe

At last month’s American Library Association annual conference in Chicago, I served on a Sunday morning panel presentation on the topic of Network Neutrality. On that day, there was no Network Neutrality legislation in Congress (like there is today, thanks to Reps. Markey and Eshoo). There was no flashy evening news piece on the topic, no rock stars on the Hill advocating for a free and open Internet. Yet 500 librarians showed up on a spectacular Chicago summer morning to hear Cliff Lynch, Greg Jackson and me talk about Network Neutrality.

If you are not familiar with librarians, this story might surprise you. But if you have ever found yourself on the business end of a discussion of intellectual freedom issues with someone from our community, you can predict what I am going to say next: The audience asked incredibly thoughtful questions and challenged some basic assumptions.

You see, Network Neutrality is, at its core, an issue central to librarians’ professional hearts. Like other issues that we’ve dealt with – such as censorship or book banning – Network Neutrality is fundamentally about having access to ideas.

Libraries’ Position on Network Neutrality

The ALA’s Office for Information Technology Policy laid out its position on Network Neutrality in an issue brief published in 2006. In that paper, we argued that libraries’ interest in Network Neutrality is twofold.

First, Network Neutrality is an intellectual freedom issue. The ALA defines intellectual freedom as the right of all people to seek and receive information from all points of view, without restriction. Unfortunately, there is no law that protects intellectual freedom on the Internet today. Internet service providers (such as the cable and telephone companies) have the ability to block or degrade information or services travelling over their networks. If these companies discriminate against certain kinds of information based on the content of the message being delivered, this would represent a severe violation of intellectual freedom.

Second, Network Neutrality is a competition issue. Libraries in the digital age are providers of online information of all kinds. Among hundreds of examples, public libraries are developing online local history resources, and academic libraries allow the online public to explore some of their rarest treasures. Libraries, as trusted providers of free public access to information, should not compete for priority with for-profit history or literature Web sites that might be able to afford to strike deals with service providers. This makes the Network Neutrality debate not only a matter of philosophy and values for librarians, but also of livelihood.

In addition, librarians value innovation. Many of the technologies most central to the Internet are founded in principles of librarianship. Metadata? We call it cataloging. Online search? May I point you to the online public access catalog (OPAC)? Linked content? Cross references in the card catalog. Indexes, full-text search – the list goes on and on. We understand that in the context of the Internet, innovation begins at the edges; a killer app is more likely to be developed by two guys in a garage than by a highly paid executive in an industrial park. It is vital to preserve and encourage this innovation that has built the Internet. Network Neutrality is central to achieving this goal.

So What Do Libraries Want?

While our profession is built on some lofty principles – and librarians are among the fiercest free speech and intellectual freedom advocates you’ll meet – we are also a community of pragmatists. We believe that there is a way to strike a balance on Network Neutrality.

There oughtta be a law. The FCC changed the rules in 2005, removing the legal protections that guaranteed consumers the right to send and receive communications and content of their choosing over the Internet. Legal protections to prevent discrimination by ISPs and to protect intellectual freedom and innovation on the Internet should be restored. There are two ways to do this:

  • 1. The “fifth principle”of nondiscrimination is right on the money. The language of the nondiscrimination condition the FCC applied to the AT&T/BellSouth merger (and echoed in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program rules) is rational and appropriate. We urge the FCC to make this principle official.

2. Congress should act to preserve the neutral and open nature of the Internet. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act is the right bill at the right time. We urge Congress to pass this legislation.

Tiered pricing structures are both fair and unrelated to the central debate. We strongly agree that any Web site or organization (including libraries – nearly all public libraries provide no-cost access to the Internet) with a high-bandwidth connection should pay more for that service than a home user or a smaller organization. This is a traditional tiered pricing structure, and it is a fair and proven model. However, once a user has purchased bandwidth, there should be no artificial restraints on the legal content that he or she receives.

The Network Neutrality debate shows no signs of slowing down, and as I witnessed in Chicago, librarians show no sign of losing interest in this topic. We look forward to working with policymakers to protect the free and open nature of the Internet. Our libraries – and our nation – deserve nothing less.

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Carrie Lowe is the Director of the Program on Networks at the American Library Association's Office for Information Technology

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