Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai declared last Tuesday that the FCC expected to repeal net neutrality at their upcoming Dec. 14 meeting. Net neutrality was established by the Obama administration to ensure equal access to the internet by preventing leaders of the telecommunications industry from commercializing media platforms, thereby shaping users’ internet access. While grappling with larger national stories about the tax overhaul and sexual assault allegations, we — as students — must recognize that paying attention to and advocating for the future of net neutrality is equally dire.
The FCC’s new plan allows for future commercial influence over web usage, which will let broadband companies block access to content by either slowing down or accelerating service for its business partners, so long as they notify customers. In short, if net neutrality is dismantled, our access to and usage of the internet will be overwhelmingly shaped by corporate giants.
While internet platforms are already hugely commercialized — influencing everything from our search results on Google to the advertisements that are targeted at us with companies’ digital marketing algorithms — all content can at least be accessed on equal terms under net neutrality. We cannot yet predict how access will accelerate or wane if net neutrality is eliminated. However, we must consider the possibility that its absence will not only inhibit our daily net usage, but also our ability to work as students.
One of the most significant ways our work may be affected is our access to research. If internet providers begin funnelling service into fast and slow channels, charging more for increased speeds, these providers could demand costs from content companies in exchange for preferential treatment. For instance, Comcast or Verizon could charge websites we use, like Netflix or Twitter, a higher price to make their sites stream and load content more efficiently. But what happens when online databases that we use to access research material, such as JSTOR, Project MUSE, and EBSCOhost, are subject to these rules? If a database is not fee-based, access might be inhibited tremendously when they must compete with subscriber-based databases and commercialized websites that can afford to leverage their content access. Meanwhile, colleges across the country might have to pay more for database access, as fees that content companies pay would likely be absorbed by consumers — namely, colleges and universities in this context.
The dismantling of net neutrality, then, can have two consequences for our research access. Oberlin will either have to pay more as an institution — potentially increasing our already-high tuition price tag — or our resource accessibility will be narrowed, compared to the egalitarian, open internet we’ve enjoyed over the past few years. While the financial accessibility of attending higher institutions is already decreasing, the trickle-down effect of net neutrality’s elimination could potentially lessen students’ capacity to afford not only access to broadband services, but higher education in general.
Net neutrality is also crucial for maintaining student activism as well, as idea and information exchange open and available. Whether by initiating a hashtag on Twitter — much like how activists Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi did with #BlackLivesMatter — or circulating an online petition to promote sanctuary campus policies to protect undocumented students, the internet has become a valuable tool in creating, spreading, maintaining, and memorializing movements of resistance and change. The Nation wrote that net neutrality is “the First Amendment of the Internet.” The Review Editorial Board certainly agrees with this perspective; to remove net neutrality is to inhibit one’s right to freedom of protest — a freedom that students, particularly at Oberlin, value and exercise regularly. Certain movements that start on websites with significant financial capital like Facebook or Twitter may not be significantly affected by the FCC’s new plan; however, if people want to take their movements to other online platforms that may be less commercialized, the FCC’s decision may remove that option. The New York Times writes that activists who implement their movements online currently “don’t have to worry about whether it’s in a pay-to-play internet ‘fast lane’ that makes access to certain types of content easier,” meaning broadband companies cannot consequently block the spread of activist movements online.
These are only a few of the many unpredictable ways your internet access and usage might change if the FCC votes to dismantle net neutrality. But you can fight to protect a democratic and open internet by calling your representatives.
Your congressional lawmakers can stop the FCC’s plan. As seen in recent months with the efforts to dismantle Obamacare, mass resistance pushes your representatives to preserve the laws you value. The same effort can pay off in the case of internet neutrality. You can call Senators Sherrod Brown and Rob Portman, as well as House Representatives Jim Jordan and Bob Gibbs. You can also contact members of Congress from your hometown districts.
Keep yourself informed and involved in protests for net neutrality, both on and offline. Demand Progress, Fight for the Future, and the Free Press Action Fund are only some of the organizations leading the effort to maintain net neutrality. They not only give you the tools to learn more about net neutrality itself and how the fight for it has unfolded, but they can give you the phone numbers of your representatives and suggest scripts for what to say.
The internet is already rife with corporate control, and the repeal of net neutrality will only ensure that it remains a commercial playground. We know that Obies have the zeal to resist and protect the online sphere. At a time when democracy is increasingly threatened from even the top levels of the government, it is our responsibility to keep the internet from succumbing to that fate.