Net Neutrality and the Future of the Internet

On Wednesday, September 10th, the internet experienced a collective moment of action. As part of a protest called “Internet Slowdown Day,” websites as popular as Tumblr, Vimeo, The Onion, Metafilter, and Netflix raised alarm bells about a phenomenon that could erode free and open access to the internet: the death of net neutrality.

Net Neutrality, as the blog TechDirt succinctly explains, refers to “the concept of the end-to-end principle of the internet, in that anyone online could request a webpage or information from any online service, and the internet access provider (usually called internet service providers or ISPs) in the middle would deliver that information.” The idea is, no matter what website you visit, large or small, legal or illegal, tasteful or tasteless, your ISP will deliver it with the same speed and priority as any other site.

In recent years, this principle has become controversial. Several major cable providers have expressed their desire to restrict top-speed connections to websites that pay them a premium. Effectively, this would mean that large companies like Netflix and Google would be able to pay for their sites to be included in a “fast lane”, while websites owned by individuals, small businesses, and public institutions would be relegated to a “slow lane,” and would take much longer to load. According to John Oliver (in the video featured below), if this new policy were implemented, the fast lane wouldn’t get faster. It would stay the same speed while all other sites became slower.

Indeed, some say that dealings of this nature have already happened. In February, the Wall Street Journal reported that Netflix signed a deal with Comcast. The deal stated that Netflix would pay Comcast to improve the speed with which Comcast’s users would be able to access their streaming service. Two months later, Netflix signed a similar deal with Verizon. Afterwards, Netflix spoke out against the deals, claiming they were made under duress and calling for the FCC to impose stronger net neutrality regulations. According to Netflix, Comcast and Verizon were intentionally throttling users’ access to Netflix Streaming and would only allow full access if Netflix paid a toll.

One of the banners used to promote Net Neutrality during Internet Slowdown Day 2014.
One of the banners used to promote net neutrality during Internet Slowdown Day 2014.

Meanwhile, the FCC has been having a difficult time reigning in the cable companies. Multiple times, the FCC’s rules on net neutrality have been challenged and overturned in court. In 2010, the FCC challenged Comcast in court for selectively restricting Bittorrent traffic. The D.C. Circuit ruled in favor of Comcast, limiting the FCC’s ability to enforce net neutrality. Shortly after, the FCC rewrote their rules on Net Neutrality and issued the Open Internet Order to reassert their authority. However, in 2013 Verizon challenged these new rules in court and in 2014 they succeeded. The FCC is currently drafting up a new proposal to enforce net neutrality. Now, all eyes are on them, as the cable companies, the media, and members of the public speak out in favor of one side or the other.

Librarians should take note: even the American Library Association has taken a public stance on this issue. They’ve come out solidly in favor of net neutrality and against efforts by ISPs to circumvent it:

A world in which librarians and other noncommercial enterprises are of necessity limited to the Internet’s “slow lanes” while high-definition movies can obtain preferential treatment seems to us to be overlooking a central priority for a democratic society – the necessity of enabling educators, librarians, and, in fact, all citizens to inform themselves and each other just as much as the major commercial and media interests can inform them.

The entire statement is worth reading, as it strongly and succinctly details the issues at hand. They point out that higher education institutions and libraries being relegated to “slow lanes” would drastically impede distance learning. They also state that the diminishing of net neutrality would lead to market-distorting effects on the internet, reducing competition and innovation in internet services and content.

On July 18th of this year, the ALA and the ACRL filed joint comments with the FCC to advocate for stronger enforcement of net neutrality. In their comments they stated that the FCC should:

  • explicitly apply open Internet rules to public broadband Internet access service provided to libraries, institutions of higher education and other public interest organizations;
  • prohibit “paid prioritization;”
  • adopt rules that are technology-neutral and apply equally to fixed and mobile services;
  • adopt a re-defined “no-blocking” rule that bars public broadband Internet access providers from interfering with the consumer’s choice of content, applications, or services;
  • further strengthen disclosure rules;
  • charge the proposed ombudsman with protecting the interests of libraries and higher education institutions and other public interest organizations, in addition to consumers and small businesses;
  • continue to recognize that libraries and institutions of higher education operate private networks or engage in end user activities not subject to open Internet rules; and
  • preserve the unique capacities of the Internet as an open platform by exercising its well-established sources of authority to implement open Internet rules, based on Title II reclassification or an “Internet reasonable” standard under Section 706.

What can librarians and other information professionals do to support net neutrality? The ALA recommends that you:

  • “Email to the ALA Washington Office (lclark[at]alawash[dot]org) examples of Internet Service Provider (ISP) slowdowns, lost quality of service relative to your subscribed ISP speeds, and any other harm related to serving your community needs. Alternately, please share examples of potential harm if we do not preserve the open internet (e.g., impact on cloud-based services and/or ability to disseminate digitized or streaming content on an equal footing with commercial content providers that otherwise might pay for faster “lanes” for their content over library content).”
  • “Ask your board to support and/or adopt the network neutrality principles.”
  • Submit a formal comment to the FCC’s website. The ALA has partnered with EDUCAUSE to prepare a template letter of support for net neutrality, available here. Today (the 15th) is the last day for formal comments, but the FCC will continue to accept “ex parte” comments until further notice. It is still useful to send your comments in, even after the formal window closes.

The FCC intends to create a new Order on net neutrality by the end of this year, and the efforts of librarians and information professionals could make a significant impact on their eventual decision. If net neutrality is important to you, now is the best time to speak out!


P.S. A large part of the recent public furor over net neutrality was sparked by this segment on the popular comedy news show “Last Week Tonight With John Oliver.” It’s surprisingly funny for such complex material. Be warned, there is a good deal of cursing.


(Post by Derek Murphy)

Longitudinal Art and the Library

Katie Paterson's "Future Library"
Katie Paterson’s “Future Library”

Recently The Guardian reported that Margaret Atwood has been selected to write a story that won’t be seen for a century. This (eventually) forthcoming piece has been commissioned as the first work of the Future Library Project, a new undertaking by Berlin-based artist Katie Paterson.

The concept is this: First, a forest of one thousand trees was planted just outside of the city of Oslo. From now on, the project will select one important writer every year to contribute a piece to be held in trust until 2114 – a century after the start of the project. On the 100-year anniversary of the project’s beginning, the trees that were planted this year will be cut down, and a book of one hundred years’ worth of unpublished texts will be made from their wood. At that point, and only then, the accumulated works of a century’s worth of authors will be released to the world.

Paterson is collaborating with the New Deichmanske Public Library in Oslo to host this art project through the ages. The library, opening in 2018, will contain a specially designed room dedicated to the project. It will be lined with wood from the newly planted forest, and it will contain the sealed works of each selected author. Every year, a new title will be added to the room. Library patrons will be able to peruse the works’ titles and the names of their authors, but nothing more. From this limited but evocative information, patrons will be encouraged to imagine and speculate on what the sealed texts could contain.

The Future Library Project can be seen as part of a tradition of large-scale longitudinal artworks – works that take place over the course of a long span of time. In 1987, John Cage, avant-garde musical theorist and pioneer of early electronic music, published a musical piece for organ titled “Organ²/ASLSP (As SLow aS Possible)”. The desired tempo of the piece, as one could infer from the title, should be as slow as one could possibly play it. In 2001, the Sankt Burchardi Church in Halberstadt began a performance of this piece that is scheduled to continue until the year 2640.

The Clock of the Long Now
Core power system of the 10,000 Year Clock

Other works of this nature have been produced by the San Francisco non-profit group The Long Now Foundation. The Foundation, in collaboration with artists, musicians, and scientists of such notoriety as Brian Eno and Stewart Brand, produces works of art and science dedicated to “creatively foster[ing] long-term thinking and responsibility in the framework of the next 10,000 years.” Among other things, they are working on a clock that will last for 10,000 years, a genomic conservation group dedicated to reviving extinct species,  and a betting arena where patrons can stake philanthropic money on various long-term societal predictions.

Works of this nature lend themselves easily to a symbiotic relationship with libraries. The Long Now also runs explicitly library- and archive-based projects dedicated to ensuring continuity of outdated digital systems, preserving all human languages past and present, and more. What began as a longitudinal art project has gradually morphed into a fount of information science research. Meanwhile, the partnership between the aforementioned Future Library Project and the New Deichmanske Public Library will drive traffic to the library and engage patrons in thinking about their futures and the future of their culture. Encouraging society to think more in the long-term can help librarians and archivists to promote public awareness and appreciation of their services. Longitudinal art projects can represent the abstract work of archivists and other information professionals in a way that is eye-catching and immediately accessible to the public. When artists and information professionals work on the same thematic ground, they can dissolve the boundaries between their professions in fresh and surprising ways.


-For more information about the ways that artists and librarians can join forces, check out The Library as Incubator Project, a resource dedicated to promoting this kind of collaboration.

-To learn more about the Future Library Project, see this lovely video by its creator:


(Post by Derek Murphy)