Washington Watch: Fighting to save net neutrality

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) recently joined 19 other higher education associations in filing an amicus brief in a lawsuit challenging the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) decision to rescind its net neutrality rules.

This is the latest manifestation of AACC’s long-held support for the concept of net neutrality.

At their core, net neutrality principles hold that internet service providers that control the means that end users employ to access the internet (the so-called “last mile”) – cable, DSL, wireless networks, etc. – should not be able to favor some content providers over others. This could take the form of “paid prioritization,” where content providers with deep pockets would pay to have their content piped faster into people’s homes, giving them a competitive advantage. Even worse, without net neutrality, internet service providers could outright block certain content for financial gain (or any other reason).

So after long consideration and a failed first attempt to regulate on this issue, the FCC adopted the Open Internet Order in 2015 that classified internet service providers as common carriers and required them to abide by net neutrality rules. The regulations withstood a legal challenge brought by telecommunications companies, but President Donald Trump’s appointed FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, vowed to overturn the rules soon after taking office.

Last December, the FCC commissioners voted 3-2, along party lines, to repeal the net neutrality regulations. The resulting Restoring Internet Freedom order was published a few months later and took effect in June.

Why we care

Why does higher education, including community colleges, care about net neutrality? The creation, consumption and dissemination of digital information is increasingly central to our institutions’ educational missions. We rely on robust internet access for a number of reasons: effective distance learning, dissemination of information to the public, research collaboration and a wide variety of other purposes.

But public and nonprofit colleges and universities cannot compete on a bifurcated internet that favors better-resourced interests. This is especially true for community colleges. Furthermore, higher education has always staunchly supported free expression, which is potentially threatened when the internet’s gatekeepers are able to favor some speakers over others.

While the dangers posed by a lack of net neutrality have largely yet to occur, that does not mean they are not real. Outside of net neutrality, large corporations (Google, Apple, Amazon, etc.) already dominate key aspects of the internet experience for most. Internet service providers, many of which are content distributors themselves, have significant financial incentives to favor their own or paid customers’ content over others, thus severely diminishing the democratic vision of the internet.

For all these reasons, AACC has joined the fight to reverse the FCC’s latest action in court.

About the Author

Jim Hermes
is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.