From books to broadband, libraries have always existed to provide equitable opportunities for all. Few can doubt the internet’s central role as a driver for expanding civic and economic opportunity, from free speech to the free market. Equitable treatment on the communications channel for the 21st Century is near and dear to librarians and the publics we serve. The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) 2015 Open Internet Order provided clear, enforceable rules to ensure these opportunities are preserved for all.
America’s public, research, academic and school libraries collect, create and disseminate essential information to the public over the internet. We are content providers, digitizing and sharing products that we create or partner with others to disseminate. We provide access to local, state and federal government documents – many of which are exclusively online. And, we facilitate online collaboration and creation by students, teachers, researchers, entrepreneurs and everyone else in our communities.
We’re a critical place for the public to access the internet. Local public libraries are often the only no-fee public internet access point in our communities. Libraries particularly serve the information needs of the most vulnerable segments of our population, including those in rural areas, unemployed and low-income consumers, older adults and people with disabilities.
This is the crucial mission of libraries: to transform communities through information. Network neutrality is essential to this mission.
Network neutrality is also an expression of our values. The American Library Association is a leading advocate for intellectual freedom—the “right of all peoples to seek and receive information from all points of view without restriction.” People’s ability to freely inform themselves is critical to our democracy, and the internet is increasingly fundamental for that task. A world in which libraries and other noncommercial enterprises may be limited to the internet’s “slow lanes” while high-definition movies can obtain preferential treatment undermines a central priority for a democratic society.
We see how subtle differences in internet speed can make a great impact on how a user receives and applies information. We support the principles of an open internet which preclude internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking, prioritizing or degrading internet content and services; charging additional fees; or placing information in “fast” or “slow” lanes. Paid prioritization is inherently unfair and harmful to institutions that do not have the resources to pay additional fees.
Library sites—key portals for those looking for unbiased knowledge and trusted repositories for government documents—and library users could be among the first victims of slowdowns. The Sacramento Public Library’s high school diploma class, Columbia University Library’s 9/11 Oral History Project, which is used in school libraries around the country; Chattanooga Public Library’s open data platform for application development; Iowa City Public Library’s downloadable local music collection; or the National Library of Medicine’s vast collection of medical information should not be relegated to the “slow lane.” People who come to the library because they cannot afford broadband access at home should not have their choices in accessing information shaped by those who can pay the most, rather than the quality of the content offered.
With so little broadband competition—particularly at higher speeds—and increasing mergers between broadband and content providers, we cannot afford to simply trust that ISPs will do the right thing. Voluntary promises by providers and the limited authority of the Federal Trade Commission to enforce these commitments are wholly inadequate for serving our public interests.
The ALA is alarmed by the increasing and frequent threats by leaders in Congress and at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to undermine the strong protections called for by millions of Americans, enabled by the FCC order in 2015 and affirmed by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
As an organization, we have called upon the FCC and congressional leaders to uphold these protections, most recently with a broad group of other leading library and education groups. We are watching, and we are ready to defend this hard-won victory. We’re not the only ones: startups, investors, consumer groups, public and private institutions, and the millions of people who commented at the FCC are ready to work together to defend these principles.
The ability of the internet to spread and share ideas is only getting better, and its role will only grow in our economy. We must work to ensure the strongest possible protections for equitable access to online information, applications and services for all. This is a trend that’s good for America.
Julie Todaro is president of the American Library Association, the oldest and largest library association in the world.
The views expressed by this author are their own and are not the views of The Hill.