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Net Neutrality Update

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Net neutrality and related broadband policies are complex, contentious subjects because all parties realize that the decisions made now could determine the distribution of power on the Internet for decades while also shaping its progress and development. Both sides in this debate have rich, powerful allies. On the pro side is the High Tech Broadband Coalition, whose members include employees from Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, and the Save the Internet Coalition. On the anti- side, phone companies and cable companies want the right to offer tiered services and charge higher rates for better-quality Internet access.
Due largely to its decentralized, uncontrolled, early growth period, the Internet developed a neutral, un-tiered economic model. In other words, the net neutrality position has the benefit of closely resembling the status quo. However, net neutrality principles aren't yet protected by law, so neutrality advocates worry that determined telecom companies could disrupt the fragile consensus.

Also, cable companies occasionally make tentative, limited trial attempts to offer tiered service or slow down certain types of Internet traffic. These trial balloons worry the net neutrality camp which worries that telecomm providers will eventually offer preferential treatment to their favored content providers and applications. Further, according to net neutrality proponents, the open, non-discriminatory architecture of the Internet has made it especially fertile in terms of encouraging new ideas and businesses such as Amazon, eBay, and Google, and any attempt to change the architecture will dampen the Internet's vital, dynamic culture.

As covered in detail by Ars Technica, the latest battles center on whether the FCC has the authority to regulate ISPs under the Communications Act of 1934. The U.S. Court of Appeals recently sided with Comcast, ruling that the FCC doesn't have the statutory authority to enforce net neutrality under Title 1 of that Act. The FCC had sanctioned Comcast for its attempts to throttle bittorrent traffic, and in response Comcast sued the FCC. After the ruling, advocacy groups immediately started speculating about an alternate means of supplying the FCC with the authority to regulate net neutrality issues. The FCC and its supporters are pointing to Title II of the Communications Act which delineates the scope of the FCC's authority to regulate "common carriers" and arguing that the cable and phone companies qualify as common carriers.

Aside from being a key provider of public computing and Internet access in communities across the country, libraries have a stake in the issue too. The ALA has jumped into this debate, generally supporting the FCC, but expressing concern lest the FCC decide it can regulate private wide area networks (WANs) such as those maintained by schools and library systems. Scroll to the bottom of this article for ALA's position on this question. For a detailed description of ALA's stand on this issue, read this blog post by Carrie Lowe on Save the Internet.com.

What do you think? On what side of the debate do you think libraries should fall? What do you see as the potential benefit (or harm) to public computing access and communities? 

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