New FCC Official Could Help Schools Navigate ‘Net Neutrality’

By guest blogger Sara Gilgore

The Federal Communications Commission‘s appointment of an ombudsperson to help guide the public through new “open” Internet rules could prove valuable to the education community relying on the free flow of content over the Web, consumer advocates say.

The FCC voted earlier this year to protect “net neutrality,” the principle that the government should treat the flow of all Internet content equally, regardless of the source or the Web user consuming it.

Last week, the agency’s consumer and governmental affairs bureau selected Assistant Bureau Chief and Director of Consumer Engagement Parul Desai to also take on the role of ombudsperson.

An ombudsperson typically acts as an independent reviewer of complaints brought by citizens against government agencies or institutions. Some newspapers, for instance, have employed an ombudsperson to look into and report on readers’ concerns about the accuracy, fairness, and overall focus of coverage.

The FCC created the new role to ensure consumers, organizations and businesses “have effective access to the Commission’s processes that protect their interests,” as required by the agency’s open Internet rules, which went into effect June 12.

In her role, Desai will act as an agency point-of-contact “to address specific issues of concern” about the rules, according to a statement released June 15 explaining the move. (The agency did not respond to a request for further comment.)

A number of ed-tech advocates and library organizations have voiced worries that if the FCC did not act to protect net neutrality, telecommunications providers would end up providing deep-pocketed commercial interests with faster access to web users, at a cost. Doing so would result in providers of academic content to schools—such as curriculum and videos—receiving slower access to content, some K-12 audiences feared.

In addition, some ed-tech entrepreneurs who rely on fast, low-cost delivery of online content also told the FCC that they feared their products and services would lose out, if Internet providers were able to throttle their access to consumers.

The FCC has said the ombudsperson will serve “small and often unrepresented groups.” A number of consumer advocates said they believe school organizations will be among those seeking the new FCC official’s help.

While the education sector would not necessarily benefit from having an agency contact more than would other industries, the new rules and the ombudsperson’s role in enforcing them are “certainly as important for education as they are for anybody,” said Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, a Washington-based nonprofit that supports net neutrality.

However, it’s too early to predict how Desai’s work might help consumers, he added.

“It’s an important role that they’re trying to fill and an important goal they’re trying to achieve,” Wood said. But “we’re still waiting and watching to see how that develops.”

Before joining the FCC, Desai worked as policy counsel for media, telecommunications and technology policy at Consumers Union, a nonprofit advocacy group, and as vice president at Media Access Project, a former Washington-based public interest group. She graduated from Rutgers University and New York Law School.

Though net-neutrality proponents see the FCC’s decision to uphold an open Internet as positive, telecommunications companies have fought the agency’s latest attempt to put its stamp on the issue, and have vowed to continue to do so in federal court.

Earlier this year, USTelecom, a trade association that represents service providers and suppliers, said the FCC’s regulation of net neutrality “slows innovation, chills investment, and leads to increased costs on consumers.”

Yet with the FCC’s net neutrality policy now in place, Desai’s experience working closely with nonprofits interested in media and telecommunications policy will be advantageous, said Harold Feld, senior vice president of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based organization that promotes an open Internet. (Both Feld and Wood formerly worked with Desai at Media Access Project.)

“For educational organizations, [Desai’s] appointment means having someone who understands the educational and non-commercial community and has experience in helping such organizations navigate the sometimes daunting and confusing world of FCC regulation,” Feld said.

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