On Campus

Net Neutrality and Education

What Net Neutrality means for education, and why it matters to you.

I was recently at a meeting organized by SaveOurNet.ca. I agreed to help take up the challenge of explaining the meaning, and the relevance, of Net Neutrality to the audience I can reach. It’s a cause I believe in very strongly.

Keeping the Internet neutral is in everyone’s interests – minus perhaps the few big players who want to wring more money from it. Unfortunately, explaining what “neutral” means, in this context, is often very difficult.

Net Neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic is treated equally. It means that the very few big companies that control the physical infrastructure of the Internet should not be able to pick and choose what kinds of traffic get priority, or in extreme cases even get through at all. This may not seem like a big deal, but in an environment where speed and convenience rule the day, almost anyone can appreciate how a few big players with the power to decide which service is fast and easy, and which service is not, can easily come to dominate the marketplace.

Examples are easy enough to come by. Voice over Internet (using the Internet to make phone calls) is a great one. You can already exchange data around the world without paying for it by the bit. Voice transmission is just data. So why do we all still pay for long distance? Well, phone companies control the Internet. If they can possibly squash services that are going to compete with theirs, you’d better believe they’re going to do it.

Some examples of how Net Neutrality gets fought on the ground are very techy, and for most people extremely boring. But just like Freedom of Expression, the principle has to be protected whenever it is challenged in order for the principle to mean anything at all. There may be justifiable exceptions, but each and every one of them must be individually justified. We absolutely can’t leave it to the discretion of corporations to decide for themselves what gets through and what doesn’t – especially when the infrastructure of the Internet is so monopolistic already.

Now, how does this affect education? Simply put, the Internet is the most incredible form of free education in history. Period. Thinking about how the Internet has levelled the playing field in terms of available education and information is just staggering. There’s still an entry threshold, and not everyone can afford a computer in the home, but compare that to where we stood only a generation ago. Simply buying a set of encyclopaedias for the home used to be a major investment. Families would pay for them on instalment. Now compare that to the ocean of information available, for free, to every kid who can get on-line.

Increasingly, sophisticated educational platforms are appearing as well. Educators are looking for ways to deliver their content directly to students over the Internet. Some of this may be misguided and motivated only by savings (I don’t approve of virtual classes in place of real ones) but other innovations are offering real education to students who would never have been able to access it before. Some of this requires significant bandwidth, such as streaming video.

This is exactly the kind of content that monopolistic Internet companies hate. It consumes the bandwidth they claim to sell in unlimited quantities (and then restrict if they can) and doesn’t produce any new revenue for them. They’re fine with high bandwidth usage if it’s something they can sell or partner with someone else to sell. But free is a four letter word, when we’re talking about corporations. Not that I’m full-on anti-capitalist here, but let’s be honest. Corporations exist to make money.

Net Neutrality protects the availability and the independence of free education. Without principles of Net Neutrality, education available on-line may either be crippled at the whim of those controlling the infrastructure of the ‘net, or else be forced to partner with huge corporations in order to survive. Even if we believe, for a moment, in the benevolence of large corporations and assume that they’ll give a break to do-gooder efforts, this still requires educators to get in bed with corporations. And no one should ever be comfortable with that – certainly not as a requirement to simply function.

What’s most likely, in this scenario, is that the only fast, reliable services will be those sponsored by companies on the inside. This is counter-innovative and anti-democratic. Not to say a large company can’t produce a good service, but if they are never forced to compete with the new kid on the block then their motive to do so is severely limited. This is why monopolies are bad. The Internet is already (sadly) very monopolistic. Net Neutrality is about limiting the ways in which the companies that are in on this monopoly are allowed to exploit their advantage.

Learn more at SaveOurNet.ca. Become informed, and talk about the issues. You don’t need to agree on every point, but please take the time to understand it. The biggest danger, with the Internet, is that we may lose a freedom we never even understood enough to appreciate, until it was already too late.

In the interest of disclosure, I serve on the board of the Canadian Internet Registration Authority (CIRA), responsible for the dot-ca domain space. CIRA has no official position on Net Neutrality, and the views expressed here are my own.

Questions are welcome at jeff.rybak@utoronto.ca. Even the ones I don’t post will still receive answers, and where I do use them here I’ll remove identifying information.

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