Thursday, October 29, 2009

Keeping an Eye on Net Neutrality

There certainly are many current educational issues in politics today, with the debate over standardized assessments, national standards, teacher merit pay, charter school funding, and the like. It might be safe to say that net neutrality is the one furthest off most educators' radar. It shouldn't be.

Net neutrality basically states that the content on the internet should be equally available to people. That is, unlike cable, you shouldn't have sites that are intentionally blocked or slowed down by internet service providers because they stand to make money if you instead go with a competitor.

The following graphic from Jason Linkins gives a good visualization of this (CORRECTION, the graphic is from a different user, reported on by Linkins):
We currently have net neutrality, but certainly many telecoms and internet service providers see the abolishing of net neutrality as a cash cow. And, politicians have moved to restrict the FCC from assuring net neutrality by introducing legislation (ironically named the Internet Freedom Act).

Schools could feel the impact of a loss of net neutrality in many ways. You could start with the additional costs to purchase the internet. And as some have predicted, like the cable companies, rising uncontrolled costs could see the advent of a new technology competitor, much like satellite TV. Would schools be equipped to handle "the new web" if something came to fruition?

Many educators have turned to free web 2.0 tools in an effort to provide collaboration and creativity in their curriculum. For the longest time, the warning was that the developers that made these free services might not make them free anymore, causing an educator to be "stuck". But sources like Blogger and Wikispaces have not made any inclination that they would go away from free services.

But, that changes. It wouldn't have to be the developers at Wikispaces who say "no more free wikis". It could be the internet providers who could do that. That's not to say that there wouldn't be other agreements (many districts work with local telecoms right now to receive free cable), but it adds an unknown to the equation.

On a deeper level, the question of open access to all information vs. censorship comes up. Is it censorship if students won't have access in schools to certain news outlets? Some would argue the internet is a big place; there will always be resources available for students. But others would argue that denying students the access to information, no matter how "little" the effect is deemed, infringes on the basic rights of students.

Maybe the best way to frame this is, is internet a right (like basic utilities) or a privilege. The issue isn't quite so black and white, but it is something that educators should have in their peripheral vision because it will affect schools.

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