Net Neutrality &
the InfRastructure
of the Internet

Protecting Net Neutrality and the Infrastructure of Internet Delivery:

Considerations for Our Past, Present, and Future

Heidi A. McKee

For the last few weeks, as I've read and browsed through two decades of Kairos webtexts, I've been in awe (as I often am) of the great scholarship in our field of digital writing studies and the array of issues we've examined and re-examined through the years. But in all of our discussions in Kairos of such topics as digital design and composing, pedagogy, intellectual property, remix, disability and access, and multimodality (to name but a few), I was surprised to find that an essential element undergirding much of our work as digital writers, educators, and citizens has often been left unexamined: the very infrastructure and delivery mechanisms of the Internet itself.

How we are able to connect (or not) to the world's largest digital network and what data we can download and upload and at what speeds matters. And what matters even more is who controls those networks and thus the delivery of information on those networks. We are at a critical juncture in the development and use of the Internet. Will it remain a (relatively) open network that most can write and read from or will it become a locked-down media, controlled primarily by large for-profit corporations or authoritarian governments? What we choose to do now and in the next 20 years will make a difference in our abilities to research, write, teach, participate, advocate, and effect change.

In this section, drawing from previous work (McKee, 2011; McKee 2014) and from the Computers and Writing Town Hall (Beck et al., 2015) upon which this collective webtext is based, I will first provide some background on net neutrality and then argue for ways we can as researchers, writers, educators, and citizens ensure that the Internet continues to be as open as possible so that as many people as possible have opportunities to compose for the Web and to contribute to local, national, and global conversations online.

An Overview of Net Neutrality

When Kairos first launched in 1996, the Web with its graphical user interface browsers was in its infancy, still primarily for those connected to education and government. In 1996, the number of Internet users in the United States was just 44 million, or 16% of the population (Google Public Data, 2015). As of 2014, it was nearly 280 million, or 86.75% of the population (Internet Live Stats, 2014). Those millions of users all need to connect to the Internet somehow and while schools and libraries continue to be important points of access, the infrastructure of Internet connectivity in the US depends on commercial companies providing mobile, broadband, and satellite access, specifically Internet service providers (ISPs) such as Time Warner, ATT, Comcast, DISH, and so on. These companies have tremendous power to surveil and control the flow of information, and increasingly, in efforts to maximize profits, they have sought ways to throttle and transform the Internet as we know it. What these commercial ISPs seek to do is to roll back and overturn a founding tenet of the modern Internet: net neutrality.

Net neutrality is a term first proposed by Tim Wu (2002; see also Wu, 2003) to describe how data should be delivered on the Internet in a neutral way with no content being privileged over any other. For much of the 1990s, this is how, in the US, the Internet functioned. But, since the early 2000's, and with increasing pressure every year, net neutrality is under threat by ISPs who want to create fast lanes and slow lanes for Internet traffic. Those willing to pay ISPs higher fees could ensure faster delivery of their content; those who can't pay the fees have their material languish on the equivalent of Internet back roads. Here is short video about net neutrality from a few years ago that still applies today from (a unit of FreePress):

Before turning to the harms we face as educators, digital writers, and citizens if net neutrality is undermined, let me first provide a bit more legislative and regulatory background, because the key way we can protect net neutrality is to influence and shape the legislative and regulatory process. I focus my discussion on the United States, but threats to net neutrality and government and corporate censorship of the Internet are global, with many countries engaging in whole-scale censorship and throttling (for excellent global resources see the Open Net Initiative's [2011] three-volume series: Access Denied, Access Controlled, and Access Contested).

U.S. Regulation: Evolving to Protect Net Neutrality (at Least for Now)

In the US, the Internet is regulated by a number of governmental agencies with issues of access and network delivery falling under the purview of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 2005, the FCC chose to classify the Internet as an information service rather than a telecommunications service which meant that rather than being able to regulate the Internet under more stringent Title II regulations of the Telecommunications Act (that also govern telephones) the FCC could only regulate the Internet under the much less stringent Title I regulations.

Under Title I, the FCC did try to stop companies from throttling and blocking lawful content on their networks, going as far in 2008 as to fine Comcast for throttling the file-sharing service BitTorrent. But, Comcast appealed the ruling in federal court. In Comcast v. FCC (2010), and in a separate ruling on a case Verizon brought against the FCC (Verizon v. FCC, 2014), the courts found that the FCC did not have the authority to regulate the Internet under Title I and thus, in the US, net neutrality was basically dead—unless the regulations changed.

So in May of 2014, the FCC proposed new guidelines for regulating the Internet. For net neutrality advocates (which I'd argue should be all Internet users), these proposed guidelines were a disaster. Misleadingly titled "Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet," the guidelines, which had been leaked several weeks in advance of their official posting, would have allowed ISPs to have paid prioritization lanes, delivering some content at faster speeds than others and throttling other content. The public outcry was overwhelming. People were justifiably outraged at the move by the FCC to hand over content control on the Internet to ISPs, and FCC commissioners received millions of comments (see Clyburn, 2014). Clearly, people were taking notice.

And, thankfully, the FCC took notice, too. After months of hearings and further research, the FCC released their Open Internet Order in February 2015, which reclassified the Internet as a common carrier, essential for daily life and thus able to be regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. You can read the whole text at the FCC site, but here's a key excerpt from the FCC's overview of the order:

The new rules apply to both fixed and mobile broadband service. This approach recognizes advances in technology and the growing significance of mobile broadband Internet access in recent years. These rules will protect consumers no matter how they access the Internet, whether on a desktop computer or a mobile device.

Bright Line Rules:
--No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
--No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
--No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind—in other words, no "fast lanes." This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

This all seems really good—we have, under the strongest regulatory classification, net neutrality—yeah! But don't celebrate too quickly. As you can imagine, the ISPs and telecommunication companies are fighting back. In addition to numerous challenges in court, they have powerful allies in Congress. In March 2015, the "Internet Freedom Act" (H.R. 1212) was sponsored by Representative Marsha Blackburn (R-Texas) with 52 Republican co-sponsors. As of this writing, the bill is currently in committee. If this bill passes—and it has a good chance of doing so—it would "prohibit the Federal Communications Commission from reclassifying broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service and from imposing certain regulations on providers of such service" (n.p.). Fundamentally, with the passage of this bill, ISPs would be free to create fast lanes and slow lanes, pursue paid prioritization, and censor and throttle lawful Internet traffic. Even if this bill fails, there will most certainly be other bills in the future. To preserve net neutrality and to ensure that all content on the Internet has a shot at equal delivery, we're going to have to be active and vigilant.

Why Net Neutrality Matters

But why should we care? Given the massive commercialization of the Web already—with more and more communications happening in corporate-controlled spaces of Facebook, Google, Twitter, and others, and given the ubiquitous advertising and data mining—does it really matter if the Internet develops into fast and slow lanes? And given the inequity of service provider plans and availability, isn't the Internet already in fast and slow lanes?

To this last question, I offer a quick aside about the plight of Internet connectivity for rural America. On the farm where I live, just three miles from Miami University's Oxford, Ohio, campus, we have limited to no cell service and the only Internet provider we can get is an expensive satellite provider that only offers limited data plans, which restrict and count every megabyte of data uploaded and downloaded on the network. Forget streaming videos and music: My family and I can hardly download large PDFs without going over plan. Fortunately, my family has the financial ability to pay the high rates so we can at least have some Internet access. Far too many people can't, and they are being left behind. Any discussions of access must consider the economic costs of Internet access, including the cost of data-limited plans that because of finances, location, or both are the only options available to far too many.

Yet once online—regardless of plan or connection device—the bits and bytes of data that stream through the networks should, ideally, be delivered at the same speed for the type of connection. An individual's personal blog should be delivered at the same rate as a mega-news site with only site size dictating the arrival time. If suddenly MSNBC or Fox News, for example, is able to deliver their material at a faster rate than other users, then their sites will be visited even more frequently. As then-presidential-candidate Barack Obama said in 2007, "once providers start to privilege some applications or websites over others, then the smaller voices get squeezed out and we all lose." With the loss of net neutrality, we lose the multitude and diversity of opinion and perspective.

Robust teaching and learning and robust democracy call for the inclusion of all voices. Writers for the Web need to know that their message can reach audiences. Sure, someone just posting in their blog may not reach as wide of an audience as someone writing for a sanctioned media conglomerate, but the person's voice is still out there and, as we've seen so often, can get picked up and remixed and recirculated in ways that expand messaging far beyond original audiences. With net neutrality, all participants on the Web have a shot (no matter how long) of reaching audiences, impacting others, and effecting change.

EFF organization oval graphic, left side grayscale, right side color depecting cartoon woman with less internet access on the left and greater internet access on the right
Electronic Frontier Foundation graphic illustrating benefits of net neutrality

With net neutrality, students and teachers have access to a much wider array of information from a wide array of sources. It may take 15 or 30 or even 60 clicks into a Google search but with perseverance, if something is out there on the Web, it can be found. Now, admittedly, students (and most Internet users) don't click much past the first few search results, so sites that fit search engine algorithms (that are often rigged to big corporation link models) are already privileged, but at least the other sites are showing up in the .82 seconds it takes for Google to return 800,000 results. But, what happens if some sites aren't showing up in that first .82 seconds? Anyone whose message wasn't backed by a billionaire, or a large corporation, or, perhaps although increasingly rare, a well-funded government or other public institution, would have a hard time getting their message out and being heard.

To provide the greatest possible personal, professional, and civic opportunities for ourselves and for our students, we need to ensure that net neutrality remains an essential tenet of Internet infrastructure.

What We Can Do

We need first to be informed about the issues and to actively participate in the legislative process. We need to join and support organizations that are advocating for protecting net neutrality. We also need to pay close attention to legislation, contacting our Congressional representatives and the appropriate regulatory agencies to share our perspectives and our concerns. As shown by the about-face the FCC did from their 2014 proposed guidelines to their 2015 order, individual participation adds up. We can most certainly effect change.

In addition, we need to build into our digital writing and media courses analysis and discussion of net neutrality and the infrastructures of delivery that undergird all Internet communications. Admittedly, I've presented a pro-net-neutrality view in this section. But students researching the issues would find an array of perspectives with companies in particular advocating that since they provide the service they should have the right (the "freedom") to control that service. The issues of net neutrality brings to the fore what Andrew Feenberg (1991) said of technology years ago: "[T]echnology is not a destiny but a scene of struggle. It is a social battlefield, or perhaps a better metaphor would be a parliament of things on which civilizational alternatives are debated and decided" (p. 14).

We face a key juncture where civilizational alternatives are being debated and decided, and it's crucial that we be involved. Do we want the Internet to remain a (mostly) open communication network or do we want to see it become controlled and dominated by corporate interests the way so much previous media communication networks have been?

More to the point of this special issue, twenty years from now will Kairos be celebrating its 40th and two more decades of fostering scholarship into rhetoric, technology, and pedagogy, or will the journal have been squeezed out by larger media? I vote for celebrating the 40th.


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