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6 Principles of Net Neutrality and How They Support STEM

Today we find ourselves in the midst of an information revolution—the internet has grown and weaved itself completely into our lives. Work, communication, shopping, banking, news and education are all increasingly only available with an internet connection.

The internet has grown from being something nice to have, to being something that is essential.

Proponents of net neutrality want Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and the governments regulating them to treat all data on the internet the same—not discriminating or charging differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or mode of communication. From any computer, you should be free to access any website and expect its content to be delivered to you in the most efficient and speediest way possible, with no favoritism or bias.

Net neutrality centers on the following principals:

All content should be delivered equally. ISPs cannot pick and choose, or charge to deliver one service faster or more conveniently than another.

Free speech. ISPs should not be able to block legal websites or filter access to news or information, regardless of corporate bias.

Protect against unreasonable discrimination. Internet customers should not be treated in significantly different ways. Every person should be able to access legal content, applications and services over the internet, without unreasonable discrimination. ISPs should not give favorable transmission to affiliated content providers or discriminate against particular internet services based on the identity of the user, the content of the information, or the type of service being provided.

Prohibit paid prioritization. ISPs should not be permitted to sell prioritized transmission to certain content, applications and service providers over other internet traffic sharing the same network facilities.

Prevent degradation. Commercial ISPs should not be permitted to degrade the transmission of internet content, applications, or service providers, either intentionally or by failing to invest in adequate broadband capacity to accommodate reasonable traffic growth.

Provide transparency. ISPs should disclose network management practices publicly so that policy makers, users, content, application and service providers can make informed choices.

These principals echo loudly for STEM education, where many modern resources, from robotics to learning management systems and programing software, require a continuous connection to the internet.

The net neutrality movement strives to ensure that information does not place some traffic, such as education, at a disadvantage to other more lucrative and commercial traffic from an ISP, or that one company's education software is not slowed because the ISP has partnered to promote another brand.

Education should be free of advertisements and half-truths, and teachers should be free to choose content that best suits their academic goals. The internet is already tough enough for young people and teachers to successfully navigate and make productive, without having to contend with subtle bias from whatever ISP is geographically placed for the learning location.

Most of our postindustrial society requires water, electricity, natural gas and telephone service to function. The essential nature of these commodities defines them as utilities, and the complexity of having an address-specific connection requires regulation. Utilities require infrastructure for delivery, and this investment creates monopolies. For example, today it is nearly impossible to set up a new power company to compete with the one who already has a line running to the consumer's house. Regulation prevents your electricity company from price gouging and bias in just providing electricity to densely populated cities and not to rural farmers. Proponents of net neutrality see high speed internet as a utility and want the government to regulate it as such.

On February 26, 2015, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruled in favor of net neutrality and reclassified broadband access as a telecommunications service (utility) and applied the rules of the Communications Act of 1934 to ISP. The ruling focused on three specific rules to be enforced:

1. No blocking.
2. No throttling.
3. No paid prioritization.

Today this ruling is under threat by Presidents Donald Trump's appointment of a new FCC chairman Ajit Pai. Pai would like to repeal the FCC's current net neutrality protections He would like to the ISPs to police themselves and only use new laws that are enacted retroactively as the need develops.

The argument against net neutrality is supported by Pai (a former laywer for Verizon) and the main ISP's of Comcast, ATT, Cox, Centuarylink, Charter and Verizon. They contend that current legislation is based on outdated laws and thinking that should not apply to modern ISPs. The say that the current oversight restricts innovation and infrastructure investment. Their goal is to take away the current oversight and allow the industry to self-regulate themselves. They argue this would allow ISPs to create new business models that will encourage free competition and investment that would only serve to benefit the consumer. Mr Pai contends that the free market exists due to our phone service and will keep the ISPs beholden to their customers.

The argument for keeping net neutrality is basically supported by—and I am not being glib here—everyone else. From Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Apple and Wikipedia to the 22 million Americans who commented on the FCC's website in support of it.

Proponents of net neutrality contend that, due to their essential service, ISP's have become a utility; given their lack of competition, they cannot be trusted to police themselves to provide equal access and transparent network management.

Net neutrality proponents want internet access for everyone, from well-served customers in Los Angles to small farms in Iowa. They fear that without regulation, profit and other corporate interests—or a dislike for certain political viewpoints or issues deemed "controversial"—may influence the way an ISP manages its networks. Companies might want to interfere with speech that makes them look bad, block applications that compete with their own, degrade or block access to union sites during a labor conflict, limit educational access for more lucrative commercial access or increase their profit by forcing content providers to pay more to avoid having their data blocked or slowed down.

These worries are heightened because the manipulation of our data is not always easily detectable; content can be delayed or distorted in important but subtle ways. At the root of the issue is the fact that most Americans don't have more than one or two legitimate high-speed broadband options. Cell phone data is just not fast enough or cheap enough for most of rural America and its schools.

The bottom line for most people is: If you do not like the policies of your ISP, it is not trivial to just disconnect from them and find a new provider.

Consumers and content providers alike want a fair and open internet for everyone. Yet can the pressures of a free market be brought to bear when you only have access to one supplier? Even assuming best intentions, can we really trust ISP's to deliver on this promise if there are no consequences to tilting the board in their favor?

Net neutrality is not really about what flows through the pipe. It is more about proactively preventing the ISPs using their privileged place in the market place to run amok.

Written by Andy the Science Wiz, NAA STEM Specialist, Andy Allan.

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