The FCC will vote on a measure today that would repeal net neutrality and pave the way for the end of the free, open internet as we’ve always known it. Librarians aren’t happy about it.
Yesterday, The Verge published an op-ed written by the heads of the New York Public Library, the Brooklyn Library, and the Queens Library systems, which called the measure “appalling,” and argued that the end of an open internet would contribute to inequality of education and opportunity, widening “the already yawning digital divide.” Later, in a phone call, the New York Public Library’s CEO and president Anthony Marx and associate director of information policy Greg Cram broke the issue down further, explaining exactly which library resources an open internet protects, who would be hurt the most by net neutrality’s rollback, and why handing the internet to ISPs could threaten the basic foundation of American democracy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
What stake do public libraries have in this issue?
Greg Cram: So, for fiscal year 2017 [the New York Public Library] provided 3.1 million computer sessions — and that’s sessions across all of the branches — using 4,700 computers. And in addition to that, we provided 3 million wireless sessions. For the first quarter of fiscal year 2018 we had 16.2 million pageviews on our digital collections.
Anthony Marx: That gives us a little bit of the sense of the scale of how much of the library goes across wires, and the simple fact is that the poorest of New York rely on the library as the only place they can go and get free use of computers and free Wi-Fi. It’s one of the reasons why the library is the most visited civic institution in New York. We have also, in recent years, been lending people what we call hot spots, which are Wi-Fi boxes they can take home, typically for a year. That gives them digital access at home — broadband access — which something like 2 million New Yorkers can’t afford and don’t have. We’re still doing thousands of those. We’d like to do more and we’re exploring how to do more, because in this day and age, if you don’t have internet access that works and goes fast enough, you can’t do your homework, you can’t do research, you can’t apply for jobs, you can’t find jobs.
We live in a world where access to information is essential for opportunity, for learning, for success, for civic life, for checking facts. Anything that reduces that, particularly for people who can’t afford alternatives, is a body blow to the basic democratic principles that the library stands for. Whether people or the library are shoved to the slow lane, and / or forced to pay to be in the fast lane with resources that are already stretched thin, is really sort of shocking. To put it sort of bluntly, the Federal Communications Commission should be defending communications.
More broadly speaking then, what you’re saying would also apply to other public libraries, as well as libraries in publicly funded educational settings. High schools, community colleges, etc.
AM: There are libraries in pretty much every community in this country. We happen to be the biggest one. And they are a vital resource. Libraries have never been used more. It’s partly because of internet access that people are coming in and benefiting from them, and all of this gets seriously whacked [without net neutrality guarantees]. That’s true not just for us but, as you say, across the country.
What exactly, as far as resources that libraries provide, would be affected by killing net neutrality?
GC: Our users depend on the library, and libraries in general, for things like completing homework assignments, locating e-government resources, e-government services, accessing oral histories and primary source materials. Things that are resource-intensive like video and audio and image collections are dependent on a free and open internet. Also things like applying and interviewing for jobs. More and more jobs involve a first round of interviews that are done over the internet. If we have to put things in the slow lane, we’re worried about those interview services being downgraded. In a research library capacity, we’re thinking about large datasets, the use of high-power broadband is needed to access those large datasets.
[Places] like the National Library of Medicine have huge data sources that need resource-intensive access to be able to use that data. Even things like interactive broadband classrooms, where there’s high-speed access to that classroom so the teacher or professor can use the classroom as a window into the world. All of those things, all of those uses, require high-speed access that’s dependent on a free and open internet.
Can you speak to how this would affect resources for people with disabilities? The American Library Association has pointed out that people with hearing loss, for example, have a particular need for videos with captioning, for example.
AM: An obvious example is that the New York Public Library runs the Andrew Heiskell Library for the hearing impaired. I believe it is a three-state depository, so it plays a role in getting access in all the ways you described to people who have hearing loss or are deaf — not just in New York City but way beyond. A lot of that now happens online and it could simply stop working, which means they’re gonna cut people off completely.
Can you explain exactly how the rolling back of net neutrality would threaten these resources, as simply as possible?
GC: I should say, the rollback of net neutrality opens the possibility for ISPs to start to play with how we pay for the internet, but because [it hasn’t] been rolled back yet, we don’t have evidence that they will in fact do those things. It’s a little speculative at this point. I think everyone is speculating a little bit in this. But the indications we got from the ISPs are that there will be paid prioritization and for us, there are specific things that would likely end up in the slow lane.
From the content side, the NYPL serves a lot of content through its networks. We serve a lot of video content, audio and image content, both from kind of a cloud server to our meeting rooms and also to the general public when they access the collections off-site. We know that if there is paid prioritization, we’ll have to pay to have that content delivered at a similar rate that the larger media companies will be able to. That for us, means slower and worse access to our collections. We don’t know exactly what it will cost to stay in the fast lane or be in the fast lane if paid prioritization is implemented by the ISPs, but it seems like that’s the way the ISPs are gonna go once this rollback happens.
Is that something libraries have to plan for preemptively, as far as worst-case scenarios in budget planning?
GC: We don’t know what the timeline would be, what the fees would be, but it’s something we’re starting to keep in mind as we’re thinking about the budget. We suspect that if this rollback happens and it’s not blocked by the courts, then it will mean increases or requests from ISPs to put our content in the fast lane. The other side of that is from the user standpoint. [We’re] also worried about the ISPs instituting an à la carte menu that would either block access to certain content, move it to lower service tiers, or charge users more on that menu of options.
All users should be able to access, to seek, and receive information from all points of view, without any kind of restriction. I think both of those aspects are worrisome and troublesome to us. We don’t know yet how the ISPs are gonna react once these rules go away, but we’re certainly worried about it in terms of planning.
That brings us to the more fundamental idea of information access, where, theoretically, ISPs might be able to block or downgrade publishers or content providers they don’t agree with.
AM: Well, we happen to believe in the First Amendment. We are a foundational part of the First Amendment. All libraries are. And you know, if you curtail people’s access to information, not only will they not be able to do their homework or look for a job or use our collections, they will not be able to inform themselves as citizens. And in this day and age, when accusations of false news are flying every day, the citizens need to be able to check facts and gather facts and argue about facts.
And they do that online, from the library. If we don’t continue to ensure that, our democracy is at risk. Not just the First Amendment.
Are you seeing library patrons expressing concern about this vote?
AM: I fear, as is often the case, people don’t really focus on what’s at risk until they’ve lost it. And that would be a tragedy. I’m sure there are many of the library’s users who are aware and have joined us, but I fear there will also be some number who will wake up one day and realize that something essential has been lost.