“There’s nothing broken about existing net neutrality rules that needs to be fixed,” opined Congresswoman Anna Eshoo (D-CA-18) at a roundtable she convened in her district to discuss the impacts of the policy and the consequences of gutting it.
Director of the Redwood City Public Library Derek Wolfgram joined Chris Riley, director of Public Policy at Mozilla; Gigi Sohn, former counselor to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler; Andrew Scheuermann, CEO and co-founder of Arch Systems; Evan Engstrom, executive director of Engine; Vlad Pavlov, CEO and co-founder of rollApp; Nicola Boyd, co-founder of VersaMe; and Vishy Venugopalan, vice president of Citi Ventures in the discussion.
On May 18, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai began the process of overturning critical net neutrality rules—which ensure internet service providers must treat all internet traffic the same—a move which the assembled panelists agreed would hurt businesses and consumers. The Congresswoman singled out anchor institutions—libraries and schools in particular—as important voices in the current discussion because libraries are “there for everyone.”
Having seen the impacts of the digital divide in my own community, I felt that it was very important to highlight the value of net neutrality in breaking down barriers, rather than creating new ones, for families and small businesses to connect with educational resources, employment access and opportunities for innovation.
“I was honored to have the opportunity to contribute a library perspective to Congresswoman Eshoo’s roundtable discussion on net neutrality,” said Wolfgram. “The Congresswoman clearly understands the value of libraries as ‘anchor institutions’ in this country’s educational infrastructure and recognizes the potential consequences of the erosion of equitable access to information if net neutrality were to be eliminated. Having seen the impacts of the digital divide in my own community, I felt that it was very important to highlight the value of net neutrality in breaking down barriers, rather than creating new ones, for families and small businesses to connect with educational resources, employment access and opportunities for innovation.”
In his comments to the roundtable, Wolfgram identified two reasons strong, enforceable net neutrality rules are core to libraries’ public missions: preserving intellectual freedom and promoting equitable access to information. The Redwood City Library connects patrons to all manner of content served by the internet and many of these content providers, he fears, would not have the financial resources to compete against corporate content providers. Without net neutrality, high-quality educational resources could be relegated to second tier status.
Like so many libraries across the country, the Redwood City Library provides low-cost access to the internet for members of the community who otherwise couldn’t connect. Students, even in the heart of Silicon Valley, depend on library-provided WiFi sitting in cars outside the library to get their work done, said Wolfgram. Redwood City Library has recently started loaning internet hot spots, focusing on school-age children and families in an effort to bridge this gap.
“I would hate to see this big step forward, then the students get second-class access or don’t have a full connection to the resources they need,” said Wolfgram. “The internet should contribute to the empowerment of all.”
Congresswoman Eshoo agreed, calling the current net neutrality rules, “a celebration of the First Amendment.”
Former FCC official Sohn indicated the stakes are even higher. At issue, she said, is whether the FCC will have any role in overseeing the dominant communications network of our lifetimes. The FCC’s current proposal puts at risk subsidies for providing broadband to rural residents and people with low incomes through the Lifeline program. It is, as one panelist commented, like “replacing the real rules with no rules.”
The panel concluded with a call to action and a reminder of how public comment matters: the FCC has to follow a rulemaking process and future legal challenges will depend on the robust record developed now. “It’s essential to build a record to win,” Sohn said.
And she’s right. On June 9, we published guidance on how you can comment at the FCC on why net neutrality matters to your library. You can also blog, tweet, post and talk to your community about the importance of net neutrality and show the overwhelming support for this shared public platform.
Rep. Eshoo’s office reached out to ALA to identify a librarian to participate in her roundtable. ALA, on behalf of the library community, deeply appreciates the invitation and her continuing support of libraries and the public interest.