Net neutrality and public libraries

Information is Free. But for how long?

Towards the end of last year, Ed Vaizey addressed a telecommunications conference in London organised by the Financial Times.   In his address, he pointedly failed to give his support for ‘net neutrality’.  In fact, although he has denied it, it would appear that he supports scrapping it altogether.  In a section of the speech on ‘net neutrality’, Vaizey commented:

“Consumers should always have the ability to access any legal content or service. Content and service providers should have the ability to innovate and, most importantly, to reach end users … This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”

The Guardian goes on to state:

The comments sparked a furore as his words were seen as allowing a two-tier internet in which companies would have to pay to get their content to arrive in timely fashion – a complaint that Erik Huggers of the BBC made last month over the corporation’s iPlayer catchup service.

There’s a phrase that should strike fear in any information professional: “two-tier internet”.  ‘Two-tier’ inevitably means unequal and, consequently, entrenching a divide those that can access the top tier and those that can’t.  But before going any further, what is ‘net neutrality’?

Tim Berners-Lee describes ‘net neutrality’ as follows:

Net neutrality is this:

If I pay to connect to the Net with a certain quality of service, and you pay to connect with that or greater quality of service, then we can communicate at that level.That’s all. Its up to the ISPs to make sure they interoperate so that that happens.

Net Neutrality is NOT asking for the internet for free.

Net Neutrality is NOT saying that one shouldn’t pay more money for high quality of service. We always have, and we always will.

Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.) There is a very strong short-term incentive for a company to grab control of TV distribution over the Internet even though it is against the long-term interests of the industry.

Let’s see whether the United States is capable as acting according to its important values, or whether it is, as so many people are saying, run by the misguided short-term interested of large corporations.

As Berners-Lee suggests, abandoning ‘net neutrality’ could lead to very real dangers in terms of the control of information.  At present the flow of information is neither controlled by the state (as it is in China) or by corporate interests.  The removal of ‘net neutrality’ would change this, leading to corporations controlling access to information – a worrying prospect.

Over in the US, the debate over net neutrality has been waging for some time. Democratic Senator Al Franken has been particularly vocal in defending the principles of neutrality.  As one US blogger puts it:

Net neutrality is, of course, the exact opposite of the freedom-trampling “government takeover” as it is tarred by opponents in the capital. Net neutrality is internet freedom, not its adversary. The doctrine is designed to protect consumers’ rights to access information that is unfiltered and unrestricted by telecommunications companies that stand to profit from what could constitute, come to think of it, a “corporate takeover of the internet”.

“The only freedom they are providing for,” Democratic Senator Al Franken and several colleagues snapped back at Republicans in a recent letter, “is the freedom of telephone and cable companies to determine the future of the internet, where you can go on it, what you can attach to it, and which services will win or lose on it.”

The removal of ‘net neutrality’ could do very real damage to both the Internet as we know it today and seriously impact on the consumer’s ability to access information.  If ISPs are able to discriminate the flow of content there could be very serious consequences and it would undoubtedly be, as the ALA recently put it, ‘a severe violation of intellectual freedom’. Take these examples from The Nation:

Imagine how the next presidential election would unfold if major political advertisers could make strategic payments to Comcast so that ads from Democratic and Republican candidates were more visible and user-friendly than ads of third-party candidates with less funds. Consider what would happen if an online advertisement promoting nuclear power prominently popped up on a cable broadband page, while a competing message from an environmental group was relegated to the margins. It is possible that all forms of civic and noncommercial online programming would be pushed to the end of a commercial digital queue.

This is an even greater consideration in the UK where there are three main political parties and a number of smaller parties that are growing in popularity.  How would the Greens and UKIP, for example, be able to compete if ISPs discriminate against them and in favour of the main political parties?  And if they are able to discriminate, how will we be able to ensure that the consumer receives a range of information rather than just that which is ‘approved’ by the ISP?

As I mentioned above, the effect of a ‘two-tier’ Internet should have very real concerns for all information professionals.  The ALA made their concerns clear in 2006:

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.

Couple this with some local authorities’ eagerness to close public libraries, and it is clear there are problems ahead.  One of the arguments against the need for a network of public libraries is that we ‘all’ have access to the Internet (of course we don’t but that doesn’t fit the narrative).  This is all well and good at present, but with ‘net neutrality’ under attack and an increasing amount of content being locked behind paywalls, it won’t be long before we find that the Internet as we know it is but a distant memory.

This is, again, yet another reason why libraries and information professionals are so important.  Librarians do not (or at least should not) discriminate on the information they provide their users.  If, for example, a customer visited the library and requested a book on ‘Islamic terrorism’ a librarian would (provided both texts are available of course!) lead you to a copy of both ‘Al Qaeda‘ by Jason Burke and ‘Londonistan‘ by Melanie Phillips and allow the user to decide which one is appropriate for them (the former hopefully!).  It may seem insignificant, but if the information professional was to behave as an ISP ‘unburdened’ by ‘net neutrality’, you would be presented with one or the other, potentially without even being aware that the other was available.  Imagine an information space where access to information was subject to vested interests.  Librarians do not have vested interests, they simply point you to a range of information resources and allow you to decide which is suitable.

Imagine, for a moment, that there are no public libraries and net neutrality is a thing of the past.  Imagine what the implications are for access to information.  Imagine the impact that this would have on our democracy.  Imagine the impact that this would have on society and how it would reinforce the gap between the richest and the poorest.  Sure, you may not think libraries are that important when you have the whole of the world-wide web at your finger tips.  But once paywalls are common place and ISPs are able to discriminate content, you may just realise what you’ve lost.  And don’t be fooled into thinking this is a far-fetched fantasy.  We are only a short step away from this eventuality.  Information has been commodified, once there is money to be made it won’t remain free and open for long.

Free choice without free information?

Can we make rational choices without information?

I try to avoid writing about political events on this blog as this is not really a forum for my personal political views but a blog about my observations about libraries and information in general (as well as a reflection on my studies).  However, as time goes by I guess this is going to be increasingly difficult.  As the cuts start to bite and local authorities close libraries based on spurious financial grounds, it will be increasingly difficult to avoid the topic without sounding partisan.  I’ll try, but I’m not promising anything!

Anyway, one story in the news got me thinking about information in a more general way.  Yesterday, The Guardian reported that fast food companies are being asked to ‘help write UK health policy’.  The report goes on to say:

The Department of Health is putting the fast food companies McDonald’s and KFC and processed food and drink manufacturers such as PepsiCo, Kellogg’s, Unilever, Mars and Diageo at the heart of writing government policy on obesity, alcohol and diet-related disease, the Guardian has learned.

In an overhaul of public health, said by campaign groups to be the equivalent of handing smoking policy over to the tobacco industry, health secretary Andrew Lansley has set up five “responsibility deal” networks with business, co-chaired by ministers, to come up with policies. Some of these are expected to be used in the public health white paper due in the next month.

One of the likely casualties of this (frankly bizarre) decision is traffic light labelling on food packaging.  Whilst some manufacturers have employed the system, many are opposed to such labelling (for obvious reasons, it may rather hurt their sales of processed foods).  It was recently reported that the food industry spent 1 billion euros lobbying the EU against mandatory labelling of this type.  Unsurprisingly (and somewhat depressingly), they won.

The argument is often made that this is about avoiding ‘top-down lectures’ and allowing people to decide for themselves about the food they eat without being subject to state ‘nannying’ (even children).  However, how can people make free choices without free information?  It has often puzzled me that the argument is often made that people are free to make their choices and that the state shouldn’t interfere with their fundamental right to do so.  In many ways, this is laudable.  But without providing the public with the information they need, how can we expect them to make rational choices?  Particularly when the void is filled with misleading advertisements by the food industry.

For me, I think there is a worrying trend emerging recently.  Whilst Murdoch’s paywall hasn’t exactly been a resounding success, with less than 105,000 readers actually subscribing there will be many in the newspaper industry hoping that this does come off.  And what then for those that cannot afford to subscribe to any of the newspaper content protected by paywalls?  Suddenly they will find their information sources radically reduced.  As I have written before, there can be serious consequences for a democracy when its people are unable to access information freely.

Add into this the fact that libraries all over the country are being ear-marked for closure, and there is a real problem over the horizon.  Contrary to popular belief, not everyone has access to a computer, let alone an internet connection.  Statistics released earlier this year revealed that 9.2 million people had never used the internet and 27% of households had no Internet connection at al.  These are not insignificant numbers.  There is a very real digital divide at play here, one that the politicians are not only failing to address, but are also seemingly entrenching (if not actually widening).  Commentators and politicians need to stop pretending that everyone has access to an Internet connection, or indeed have the required level of digital literacy – let’s not forget that around 56% of the population of the UK have literacy levels below a good GCSE pass.

It seems ironic that although we live in the age of the Freedom of Information Act, we seem to be regressing in the amount of information that is in the public domain.  With information increasingly seen as a commodity that has a price, we are gradually seeing information put out of reach of the average citizen.  That this recent drive to put a price on all sources of information, whether they be digital or physical, comes at a time of questioning the relevance of libraries is a worrying and disturbing trend.  Once information about our democracy is hidden away behind paywalls, requiring costly equipment with which to access it, what then for those that cannot afford to access it?  And what then for a society with an increasingly poorly informed electorate?  I’m not sure what the future holds in terms of information as a commodity, but I am sure it is not particularly ‘fair’.