A sprawling assortment of technology companies and online-content providers are kicking off a public campaign today to stand up for “net neutrality” protections, which advocates say schools rely on to get academic resources they need.
Companies like Facebook, Reddit, and Netflix have broadcast statements supporting the “Day of Action” effort. And many others have committed to lending their backing, according to one of the advocacy groups organizing it, Fight for the Future. Google said it was participating in the campaign, but declined further comment to Marketplace K-12.
Google is a dominant player in the K-12 arena as a provider of operating systems for Chromebooks and as the creator of G-Suite, a classroom collaboration platform widely used in schools.
And Facebook Founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg is laying the groundwork for supporting “personalized learning” in K-12 education through the limited-liability corporation he launched with his wife, Priscilla Chan. (See my recent story breaking down the strategy of Google and other players in the K-12 market, and my colleague Ben Herold’s analysis of the Zuckerberg-Chan ambitions.)
The new campaign has been sparked by recent efforts by the Federal Communications Commission to roll back regulations adopted two years ago that were designed to protect net neutrality.
Net neutrality holds that all content delivered through the web should be treated equally by internet service providers—rather than allowing those providers to deliver some materials at accelerated speed while throttling or blocking other content.
Some school officials and librarians fear that if net neutrality is undermined, telecoms could give faster delivery to deep-pocketed content providers while restricting the flow of academic materials from nonprofits and other sources to educators. In addition, some ed-tech advocates argue that weakening net neutrality could make it harder for potentially innovative startup companies to break into the K-12 market, if they’re thwarted in getting their content to schools.
In 2015, under then-Chairman Tom Wheeler, an appointee of President Obama, the FCC protected net neutrality by reclassifying broadband service as subject to regulations under Title II of the Communications Act and section 706 of the Telecommunications Act. Regulations approved by the FCC forbade internet providers from creating “fast lanes” for delivering internet content, and from degrading or slowing other content.
But President Trump’s nominee to head the FCC, Republican Chairman Ajit Pai, has said he sees the FCC’s earlier actions as federal overreach, and since taking direction of the commission he has moved to dismantle the earlier rules.
Talking to Congress
Pai contends the earlier policy stifles business innovations by internet service providers and that the Title II provisions create a level of regulation on online providers that was excessive.
Previous FCC action amounted to the agency seizing “unilateral authority to regulate internet conduct to direct where internet service providers make their investments, and to determine what service plans will be available to the American public,” Pai once said.
In May, the Pai-led FCC gave initial approval to a notice of proposed rulemaking that would reverse the FCC’s decision two years ago and eliminate the Title II regulation on internet service providers and place them under what the agency describes as “light-touch” policies included in Title I of the federal Communications Act.
The FCC is now seeking comment from the public on whether the FCC should “keep, modify, or eliminate” the earlier commission policy. With the “Day of Action,” the backers of net neutrality hope to convince the agency to uphold the previous rules, and they want to pressure Congress to take that stance, too, said Evan Greer, the campaign director for Fight for the Future, in an interview.
The comment period ends on July 17. Greer said the Day of Action is just one part of a sustained effort to encourage the public to make their views known to the commission.
“The FCC should listen to their public. That’s their job,” said Greer. Pai, he added, “answers to Congress, and they answer to all of us.”
Both Zuckerberg and Facebook Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg posted statements on the company’s platform Wednesday plugging the campaign and saying they would urge federal lawmakers to fight for net neutrality.
“Keeping the internet open for everyone is crucial,” Sandberg wrote. “[I]nternet providers shouldn’t be able to decide what people can see online or charge more for certain websites. The current net neutrality rules help make sure this doesn’t happen but the FCC’s proposal could change that.”
Companies taking part in the Day of Action are being prodded to embed “alerts” on their homepages meant to warn users that their access to the web would be sent into slow-motion, if net neutrality principles aren’t upheld. The alerts include a “spinning wheel of death,” “blocked,” and “upgrade” messages. (See the images at the top of this post.)
A spokesman for the FCC declined to comment on the campaign.
Many of the biggest tech companies that operate in the consumer space have very different views of, and interests in protecting net neutrality, based on their online traffic and delivery of content, including video streaming, as this incisive piece in Wired points out.
And not all of the companies and organizations backing the Day of Action have the same vision for what net neutrality should look like.
In an online post, AT&T’s vice-president for external and legislative affairs, Bob Quinn, said the telecom supports a “bipartisan regulatory approach” to net neutrality. But he also warned against saddling internet service providers with “heavy-handed, outdated telephone regulation,” and said the 2015 FCC provisions went too far.
“The debate around an open internet has been going on for nearly 15 years,” Quinn wrote. “In the end, the issue is never really about what the rules should be or whether we should have an open internet…Congress should act now to provide the clear statutory authority that guarantees an open internet for all consumers.”
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