In an age of Donald Trump, research funding cuts and debates about free speech on campus, “net neutrality” has struggled to reach the top of the US higher education debate.
However, universities have warned that the decision by the Federal Communications Commission to repeal the Open Internet Order – allowing private internet providers to control the speed of data delivery – will infringe on free speech and create barriers to higher education.
The shift, proposed by FCC chairman Aji Pai last month, will roll back a 2015 decision by the Obama administration that classified internet services as a “Title II” public utility, similar to landline telephones and electricity.
Under the proposal, which was passed in a vote by the commission on 14 December, an internet service provider will be allowed to prioritise content by controlling access speeds. Higher education stakeholders have criticised the policy, saying that it will result in an internet controlled by corporate interests and one that is no longer an open public space.
“Net neutrality is critical to preserve an open internet and the modern form of the town square where everyone has an equal voice,” said Krista Cox, director of public policy initiatives at the Association of Research Libraries (ARL).
A repeal gives ISPs the ability to discriminate against some content while favouring corporate affiliated content, she argues. “Those who can pay for prioritisation will be heightened and others diminished,” she said.
The ARL is part of a group of higher education organisations including the American Council on Education (ACE) and the American Association of Universities (AAU) that have called on the FCC to ban blocking, degradation and paid prioritisation of internet content by service providers or broadband mobile providers.
At risk is free speech, the group argued. “The current proposal would allow corporations to allow that there are types of content that are too controversial,” said Jon Fansmith, director of government relations at ACE. “There’s a very real possibility of suppression of free speech and limitations on what kind of speech is acceptable.”
The private networks that universities use to access the internet will be unaffected by the decision, however, with just five companies serving 80 per cent of internet customers, many students may struggle to switch to an alternative service provider off-campus.
Complicating the ability to access fast internet is the patchy broadband infrastructure in the US in general. According to the FCC’s 2016 broadband report, one in 10 Americans nationwide lacks access to acceptable internet speeds.
It also found that more than 39 per cent of Americans living in rural areas lack access to advanced telecommunications capability, compared with 4 per cent of Americans living in urban areas.
Any disruption to speeds could deeply affect the quality of education that students receive off campus, stakeholders argue.
Megan Kocher, a science librarian at the University of Minnesota, said that the repeal “could be devastating” to the quality of distance-education that the institution’s rural-based students receive.
“Waiting for pages to download isn’t a luxury that everyone has,” she said. “It’s discriminatory to accept that only people on campus will get it; it’s objectively a worse education for people in rural areas.”
Other critics have said that the repeal threatens to disrupt online exams and creates barriers to students forming online communities.
With the growing use of flipped classrooms, the day-to-day operations of higher education pedagogy will be also affected by the repeal, said Jessica Sebeok, associate vice-president and counsel for policy at the AAU.
“The demographic of undergraduates has changed – 50 per cent of students are non-traditional and live off campus. Distance learning is a big part of their ability to obtain their goals,” she said.
Community outreach, an important mission that universities use to engage with local and state-wide communities and disseminate their research, could also be at risk.
Ms Kocher said that the University of Minnesota’s community extension programmes are vital to its land grant mission to “provide education throughout the state”. The initiatives connect Minnesotans to the institution’s research and experts in fields such as tourism, and health and wellness.
“Especially in agriculture, we have to have a strong partnership to get research to farmers. It is important that people think of the University of Minnesota as a partner and as their resource,” she explained.
“Without net neutrality, it puts us in danger of not being able to reach users across the state.”
The biggest impact of the repeal, however, will be cost, and educators believe that the move will ultimately push up already soaring tuition fees.
Chris Millet, director of learning design operations at Pennsylvania State University’s World Campus, said that the proposal creates a major barrier to students accessing videos that are central to online course material.
The majority of the online school’s 16,000 students would be impacted if the university’s online content is defaulted to an internet slow lane, he said.
“We want to offer educational opportunities to all students but the repeal would potentially introduce new costs [for] that model to contend with,” he said.
In addition to using online services to facilitate classroom instruction or to provide distance learning, universities use cloud-based services such as Microsoft Office 365 and Google apps, explained Mr Fansmith at ACE.
“We have massive research networks for collaborating and sharing information; we have libraries that store and share huge amounts of data off-site or on cloud-based servers,” he said. “If all of those services that we employ are required to shift their pricing model based on prioritisation, or throttling, those costs get transferred to us and we can’t simply swallow them.
“When you do something that adds significant costs to institutions, you’re effectively pricing out low-income students.”
Supporters of the repeal, however, argue that net neutrality is a form of government regulation that could signal the beginning of tighter internet restrictions overall.
“You can’t believe what’s on the [net neutrality] tin,” said William Dutton, director of Michigan State University’s Quello Center, which researches communication technologies, industries and consumer choices. “This opens the internet up to the threat of greater policy constraint.
"It invites additional content regulations and legitimises content regulation by the government, which could undermine an open internet."
The best thing for the internet is to focus on competition and fostering more search and video platforms, he argued.
The campaign to maintain the Open Internet Order won’t end with the 14 December vote. “Immediate litigation is expected to follow,” said Mr Fansmith.
“I think there would be a variety of parties that would be pursuing that,” he said, but added that ACE would likely avoid the court process to focus its efforts on influencing potential congressional action.
Similarly, Ms Cox of the ARL said that the organisation will continue to advocate for net neutrality. “As we have in the past, we will continue our advocacy through all channels, including through amicus briefs in the courts and in Congress, which may be searching for a legislative solution,” she said.
Local rules on the worldwide web
Despite the intentions of the internet’s creators to provide an open platform to share and access information across geographical boundaries, global net neutrality principles do not exist.
The European Union introduced strict net neutrality measures to its Telecoms Single Market regulations in 2016. India also recently introduced binding net neutrality rules.
Meanwhile, Australia presents a potential model of where the US may be headed. It has no net neutrality regulations and any anticompetitive behaviour is addressed by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission.
Discussion of the topic of net neutrality is heating up, however, as the country tries to implement a national broadband network – an idea introduced by the government in 2009.
Like the US, Australia faces significant challenges to provide high-speed broadband internet across large swathes of land.
“The digital divide is a profound problem,” said Matthew Rimmer, professor of intellectual property and innovation law at Queensland University of Technology. “The difference is between the cities and regional and rural areas but also in terms of a question of wealth [and] in terms of who has access to what internet speeds.”
One of the great hopes of the national broadband network is that it would enable distance education, Professor Rimmer explained. “It would be one of the ways to overcome the tyranny of distance,” he said.
However, plans to roll out the broadband network have been delayed by shifting national political agendas.
“In many ways, Australia is in a weaker position than the US,” said Professor Rimmer. “We don’t have network neutrality protections. We don’t necessarily have proper protection in relation to freedom of speech; we only have an implied freedom of political communication.”