Episode 7: Why Net Neutrality Matters for Nonprofits
Despite substantial public opposition, Obama-era regulations securing Net Neutrality – a principle that essentially bars Internet Service Providers (ISPs) from playing favorites with different websites – were rolled back by the FCC on June 11, 2018. These changes could pave the way for a new, highly manipulated user experience: movements, media reports, resources, and more that ISPs – or their investors – don’t like, or that don’t make them any money, could end up on the other side of a slow connection. What could this mean for nonprofits – and for the communities they serve?
Katharine Trendacosta, Policy Analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Larra Clark, Deputy Director for both the Public Library Association (PLA) and the American Library Association’s (ALA) Office of Information Technology Policy, join the hosts.
TM: You're listening to Field Notes in Philanthropy. I am Tory Martin.
MD: I'm Matthew Downey.
TM: Patrick Center could not be with us today, sadly, but we are, uh, going to blaze forward without him.
MD: A little bit shorthanded.
MD: For an important conversation.
TM: A very important conversation.
MD: So back in December 2017, the Federal Communications Commission [FCC] voted to roll back a set of Obama-era regulations that codified the concept of net neutrality. Those regulations banned Internet service providers, or ISPs, from intentionally slowing down or blocking web content. They also forbade ISPs from enacting paid prioritization, which is allowing some content creators to pay for faster access and loading on their websites. And a fourth regulation that gave the FCC power to investigate ISPs’ practices, they thought might be problematic. As a result of that December vote, those regulations expired on June 11.
TM: So over the past decade, our country has been engaged in a fierce debate over the evolving nature of the Internet and its role in our personal, civic, and economic lives. So some argue that the Internet's ubiquitous presence in society – I mean, it's always merely a smartphone away – makes it really as essential as other services that we would consider basic utilities, so electricity, water systems, telecommunications. With that understanding, however, the need for equitable access and affordability quickly escalates this issue to a matter of social justice for both consumers and content providers. While most of us take for granted how easy it is to stream content or upload a podcast, for instance, uh, for others to find and listen to, we can't forget that significant areas of this country still do not have adequate access to high speed internet. So... this podcast is about philanthropy. Why does net neutrality matter to us?
MD: I think that's a fair question. You know what I wonder about this issue is, okay… the relationship from this issue to electricity, and then that takes us to this social justice notion, right? That, that makes sense. And I think that's the right analogy, but I wonder, like, because I wasn't there when electricity was introduced, right?
That if maybe electricity was so obvious at the time at which it was sort of discovered [muttering] or whatever, that what its benefits are, the possibilities were and… but I was there when the Internet was first unveiled and I think that even though the uptake on the Internet was fast, but I don't know that everybody was bought in right away. And then the corporate sector’s presence and sort of making that happen was so present, and that I think we're just now, as a society, re-calibrating in terms of “how do we define this now and can we redefine it as something as essential as electricity, when I'm not so sure that's what people had, ultimately, or most Americans had, or most people in the world had in mind when it first came online?” So what that has to do with philanthropy, I'm not sure…
MD: …but insightful nonetheless, right?
TM: Indeed. Well, you know, I think this… I think philanthropy has a lot of questions about “what is the responsibility of the government and what is their responsibility or what space can nonprofits step into?” And at the moment, this questioning of government, of whether the government should say, no, the Internet is a basic need at this point across the country, therefore, we're going to invest in the infrastructure to get high speed in Internet to all of these places that it currently does not exist or we're going to install wifi across all of our cities, which many cities are doing now, or across our transit systems in DC, just went through a major effort to put Wifi into metro systems. These questions around the government's role are really important to philanthropy and really important to how we think about service distribution. Because there’re actually also a lot of state efforts right now to try to enact net neutrality regulations at the state level because they've been repealed federal level and although the FCC is trying to say, “No, no, no, we said you couldn't do that.” States are saying, “yeah, we don't answer to you necessarily.”
But a lot of these states, with the exception of Washington, which just passed a statewide net neutrality regulation, uh, which went into effect on July 11th, just in time for the FCC rules to roll back. A lot of these states, for instance: Oregon, Vermont, Hawaii, Montana, New Jersey, New York, they're issuing orders that say ISPs cannot mess with the Internet provided to government agencies, but they do not go further than that. So, it's obviously an issue that matters to government, but it's also an issue that matters to every person who's trying to access government services. And a lot of those are nonprofits who are trying to form a conduit between the government service and the people who need them.
MD: And I think even just the number of ways in which people, I mean, we think about philanthropy and nonprofits as stepping into having a voice for those who are marginalized, for people who need others to be supportive of them having an equal access to resources, right? And, and how much of that happens on the internet. I mean, if you are trying to find food and shelter, the availability of that information on the Internet is there. If you are trying to get a job, um, if you're trying to get an education, and if you are wanting to display art that you've created and have it done in a way that's beautiful and representative of the actual art, if you want to buy tickets to a local theater show, I mean all of these things are made available in the art and those are all intersections with nonprofits and philanthropy.
TM: So the next question is of course without a quote unquote neutral internet now, is all of this going to fall apart? Are companies like Comcast and Verizon going to step in the way of you and your local theater tickets or are they not? I think that's a real question that we don't know the answer to.
MD: And you know, or even at the Johnston Center, our philanthropy archives and all the things that we've been able to make available for people doing research and exploring and understanding philanthropy in our culture and society. How is that going to be affected?
TM: You kind of wonder if it's going to be, again, just about the big players. Is it just about creating competition between large social media networks of, alright, Facebook paid to play, Twitter didn't. Therefore, we're going to make Facebook easier to get onto because we can't be bothered with the Johnson Center archives. I mean at some point there's an economy of scale here, but we just don't know. So I think this is the perfect opportunity to bring in some of our guests because they are the real experts and, uh, we'll turn it over to them.
MD: You're listening to Field Notes in Philanthropy.
TM: Hey all! A big thank you from all of us to all of you who have already subscribed to and rated the podcast. If you haven't done it yet, do us a favor and hit subscribe or rate us right now. It will help other people find us, too.
TM: Our first guest is Katharine Trendacosta, who is a policy analyst at Electronic Frontier Foundation. Katharine, welcome to the show.
KT: Hi. Thanks for having me.
TM: We'd really love you to start by giving us a sense of the issue itself. When you talk about net neutrality with people, what do you say? How do you frame this as an issue?
KT: So the thing about net neutrality is it’s pretty famously hard to talk about because there's so much, like, weird minutiae and weird regulatory twists and terms that the average person is going to find boring. And so the way I describe net neutrality for people, even for people who believe in it but are having trouble explaining it is, net neutrality is the principle that the people you pay to let you onto the Internet don't get to decide what you do once you're there or how you see the internet once you're on it. So how fast it is or which websites you go to. None of that should be determined by your ISP. You have already paid them to get on the internet. You should not also be paying to give you everything that is there.
TM: So was this actually happening? I mean we know that these regulations went into place a couple of years ago, but was that in response to abuses going on or was that just, alright, the world is starting to talk about net neutrality. We want to make sure that we're protecting consumers here, so we'll put these regulations in place?
KT: So these regulations didn't come into place because people were starting to talk about it. In fact, while people in like Myspace were talking about it for a long time, this wasn't something that the public was really that aware about or that was hitting so many notes up until like and, he would hate this because he, he also makes fun of it, but it's like John Oliver is, really where like…
KT: …public attention really, really went into it. Like it was really never been intended to be a thing that, like, everyone was supposed to know a lot about. It would have a different name than net neutrality.
KT: Something much sexier, right?
MD: It's hard. It's hard for people to imagine or understand the issue because we haven't known anything but a neutral internet. Is that a fair statement?
KT: That is, that is largely fair. There've been a series of violations, net neutrality violations, and in fact the reason the rules that we had evolved the way they did was out of a series of fights the FCC was having where they would try to tell an ISP they had to be net neutral and then the ISP would say you can't [regulate] us that way, and they go to the court, the court would say yes or no, and then the FCC would tweak its regulations based on the court findings. And so, that's sort of how we ended up where we ended up. But we have never known, in this country, an internet that wasn't largely neutral.
TM: So how would you explain the issues popularity then? Because of course it's, it's trending on Twitter, I mean practically every day now the regulations, um, were repealed on June 11th or, or expired, whatever the best way to put that would be. And you know, everyone's talking about it. I mean it's become a tremendously popular and at least marginally well-understood issue, in that people get the understanding that alright net neutral means no one's gonna mess with my Internet. If I don't have net neutrality, then people are going to mess with my internet.
MD: and bipartisan. Right? Like, this is not a partisan issue.
KT: Yes, so yeah, the latest study says 86 percent of Americans are in favor of the net neutrality protections that we had and that the large majority of Republicans and a large majority of Democrats, it is, it is not party bound by any stretch of the imagination. At least when it comes to Americans rather than politicians. And so it's an incredibly popular topic and you see it trending all the time because it's trending on the Internet and it is trending where, where people are on the Internet because once you are anywhere on the Internet, it is pretty obvious that this is a really important topic. There are a couple of issues that are sort of exi- that are sort of existential threats to the way we use the internet and the way we see it and net neutrality in the United States is one. Article 13, which is a going on, which has being debated in the European Union right now is another. And when you see things of that level that can change the internet as we know it into something much worse. People will rally behind that because the Internet is that important to our lives these days.
MD: I think if we start thinking about the nonprofit sector and nonprofit organizations and you know I, I spent a lot of time thinking about rural organizations in this issue and even some of the ways… how these organizations that are doing capacity building work with nonprofits. I mean they're teaching a lot of workshops, uh, via Skype or other streaming services that are even not skype. They're not even major companies, providers, but they're doing, you know, the web, webinar-casting services. And that's probably got to have an impact in terms of how they're going to be able to teach those workshops to nonprofits across a rural area. And I wonder where you see, from the [Electronic] Frontier Foundation's perspective, like the most activity going on either from concern or mobilization among nonprofit organizations
KT: In terms of net neutrality, a lot of the focus tends to be around sort of grassroots and, and what, and what the actual net neutrality actions have shown is how important the Internet is to being a nonprofit organizing group. Because a lot of the actions that are, that have been taken for net neutrality in the various stages of this fight – back in 2015 when the fight was for the open Internet order that we got, and now when it's to fight the repeal of that order – quite a bit of it has come on the Internet. In 2015, you saw this sort of blackout where, when you would go to a website, a bunch of websites participated, you would go to the website and it would show you, like, you have to pay a toll or there would be a pop up or it would slow down and it would show you a sort of simulation of what neutrality protects you from. And that was really popular and really effective. And now it's you see in the same thing. It's trending all the time because people are talking about it all the time and it generates a lot of attention and that is one of the other ways that you can keep putting pressure on. And so in a, in a nonprofit, nonprofits that sort of advocate for things that's a sort of model that can be used.
TM: I'm really fascinated by this notion that it's trending on the Internet because it is the Internet. This is the space where the most active users are going to be and going to be talking about it. And I wonder if there is another space where the opposite conversation is really happening. I mean, it's hard to say, who are the folks out there in favor of repealing these regulations and allowing the pure capitalist notion of the invisible hand to manage organizations like Comcast and Verizon and AT&T. Because it's apparently, it's only got about 14 percent of Americans. But they are out there. So I'm curious what sorts of arguments you're hearing and how you would combat them.
KT: So those arguments they come from basically two places, either from ISPs or from, um ISP-friendly politicians, um, and the arguments that you hear are sort of the same arguments you would expect and they don't make a ton of sense in the internet age, in fact. ISPs basically say if you do, if we don't, if we have net neutrality, then we're going to have to charge people more because all of these services they're connecting to take up all of our bandwidth. And if we can't charge for people who use those services or are charge those services, then we're just going to have to raise the prices for everyone. Because we need that money, and without that money, we won't be able to expand our reach, and people in rural areas or in uncovered areas aren't going to get better internet connections. That's clearly not true for one reason. A. ISPs make plenty of money. They are not hurting for the cash they need to expand their businesses. B. the other thing that, that makes this not true is we know from things they said after the 2015 internet order that it wasn't hurting investments. That the idea that net, of net neutrality wasn't impacting their plans to grow or not grow. And so that argument has never really held a lot of water.
MD: I think there's also the, um, think tanks have played an active role in trying to shape or frame the issue. And what's interesting is knowing that this is a bipartisan issue and that you've got, you know, supporters here or people who are advocating or are concerned about this from all walks of American political life. You've got, like, the Heritage Foundation which wrote an article that said “Americans should ignore the Chicken Little squawking of neutrality supporters.”
MD: [Laughing] But the whole article was about how the Left is framing, you know, how they have to sort of combat the Left's reframing of this issue. Um, even though a lot of people on the Right are concerned about it too. So I think the think tanks are trying to play a role here.
TM: It's loud voices.
TM: It's what's going on.
KT: Yeah. And, and Ajit Pai [Chairman of the FCC] did an op-ed. Um, I actually think that headline isn't exactly wrong in the sense that, I have often said that the, one of the problems that you constantly face in an area this complex is that there's a natural tendency to want to say things like that “neutrality died today.” The problem is that ISPs, some giant corporation, at least the ones that are going to take advantage of this tend to be giant corporations and they don't move that quickly. And so it's not as if on June 11th a switch got flipped. These ISPs, some of them have changed their policies to be broader and to allow them to do things. They haven't done anything yet because all of the things they’re going to take advantage of required them to make deals. And those deals don't happen overnight and they're still being sued that, not they are... These rules are still being challenged in court. There's a large landscape that is unsettled and so it plays into the uh to the hands of net neutrality opponents to make everything really doom and gloom over one day. Because it's much sneakier and more insidious and actually far and grosser than that. It's going to be a very slow insertion of things until most people don't realize that the internet has no longer become neutral, that they are no longer seeing everything. They are only seeing what the ISPs have decided they should be seeing.
TM: It's the frog in the boiling water.
MD: Kind of like American values and po- politics today generally, right?
MD and TM: [Laughing]
KT: Everything important actually changes in a way that you don't notice until it's really far gone.
MD: Yes. Slow, slow adjustments in thinking and normalizing everything as we go.
TM: Well, and then a lot of that happens on the Internet, right? I mean, if you think about the other, if we think about the nonprofits that we're talking about here, if we think about large scale nonprofit education, if we think about health systems, telemedicine, if we think about social movements, even something as far away and broad ranging as the Arab Spring which was largely organized via the Internet. These things happen slowly and they happen online.
TM: So if you are living in a circumstance under which your access to the internet is either intentionally censored or limited by virtue of geography or limited by virtue of an ISP deciding that they don't want you to have access to Facebook today. You know, these massive world movements that are about social good, that are about innovation, that are about advancement of services. All the sorts of things that nonprofits and foundations care about are gonna sort of be up for grabs.
KT: You're also talking about like the people whose voices get silenced aren't the other giant corporations. Like, Facebook will be fine. Facebook has the money to pay the ISPs, their protection money, and to be every to be delivered to everyone as quickly and efficiently and no one's going to notice a difference with Facebook. It's the person who's developed Facebook that is better, or if you yourself have a website and you and your organizing, or you're a small organizing effort and you, and or a local one and you don't have that money. That's what's gonna happen. The people who get hurt in this are, are the people on the margins. As usual. And that is a problem.
A lot of the rhetoric about how net neutrality is bad also tends to be around the idea that it's it wasn't a FCC regulation and regulations are bad. Ignoring the fact that this isn't a normal economy, this is an economy of where people don't have choices. It is really hard for most people to go pick an ISP that has net neutrality. A majority of Americans have one choice for high speed broadband, one choice, and it's usually an ISP that isn’t going to put net neutrality in their agreements. And if you had a choice, and if the market was working the way that we dream it would, and you could pick the market, and you could pick the one that has net neutrality and privacy protections and all of those things. You would pick that one, and the market choice was swinging that favorite, right? Because the vast majority of people want net neutrality, but we don't have an option. And that's why laws and rules and regulations are really so important in this space.
TM: Well and Facebook is actually an interesting thing to bring into this conversation because anyone who's ever been a social media manager for a nonprofit or for themselves or for anything is subject to the whims of Facebook's algorithm.
TM: And for the years that I've been in that space, the number of times that we're trying to get an event posting out there, or a new report, or a new toolkit, or something and we're playing a game against what Facebook wants to promote or doesn't want to promote. It feels actually like a fairly similar analogy to say that that's the kind of experience we may be facing. I mean it's sort of a clearing house for all sorts of information, and it's the small voices, it's the tiny museums, the animal rescue services, the volunteering for women in shelters in your community, that have the hardest time getting space in your feed because they're not given preferential treatment through the algorithm unless they pay to boost their posts.
KT: Yeah, b- before I worked for a EFF, I was a journalist for many years. And I can't tell you how many times you would be in meetings and the person in charge of, of social media, would be like, “so Facebook's algorithm has changed.”
KT: And we see this happening. And that's, um, not a really healthy way to be interacting with the Internet, in general. Not the least of which because they like to say it's an algorithm, but that algorithms make mistakes because there's no human judgment involved, in theory. That is not the way people interact with the internet or want to believe they're interacting with the internet. And it's – going onto an internet that's been walled off is bad, going onto an internet where because you have paid less than someone else and are getting a different internet is also not… is gross and wrong and not the way that we see the Internet working.
KT: and it's supposed to be the great level playing field. Anyone who gets on is supposed to rise and fall by their own quality, and without net neutrality, it's less that and more who can pay. And that's not correct.
MD: Well, I think it's clear this issue, like it's never going away. Because I think we're still wrestling in society with what the Internet means to society and how all that shakes out is not gonna, it hasn't happened yet and it's probably gonna happen over time. But I'm what I find interesting about this issue is the FCC is never going to be the same. Right? Like I think they've gotten more attention and more posts and more public comments on their policies than they've ever imagined. I think that in, in, in some sense that's good, that's good for this issue and it's good for organizing. Americans have an understanding of a not very attractive nor sexy part of American democratic system, which is how the FCC works and there are other similar regulations. And so I think it gives, um, social movement and organizing organizations and opportunity to organize because people are familiar with the issue and learned a little bit about how this part of our democracy works and that that can't be a bad thing.
KT: No, honestly, so much of what is done you don't realize is done by agencies like the FCC that have open comment periods and are supposed to be able to be heard from the public. And if net neutrality has taught more Americans that that is a place where their voice can be heard, that is a good thing.
When it comes to net neutrality, especially in, especially in the last couple of months, those voices that are being heard are people. You haven't heard – even though I talked about the organized effort to, to have the widget pop up and show you what a slowed down Internet would look like, or what a tolled internet would look like – these days, it is far less companies and far more people who are talking about net neutrality, and that is a very good thing and it means that a lot of organizing is around those people and not around getting backers to help you get your voice. So this is resting with the majority of Americans.
MD: Well, this has been a fantastic conversation. I think this went in a variety of really interesting directions and I'm, I'm really pleased with that. And I want to thank you for joining us for this conversation. We'd love to stay in contact with you because I know this is gonna evolve and you're going to be like the so knowledgeable person on this topic
TM and KT: [Laughing]
MD: …and um, we'd like to just sort of…
KT: I live here now, in net neutrality land. This is my home.
MD: Right, great with your cat.
MD: So thank you for your time and, uh, we look forward to speaking with you again in the near future.
KT: Thank you so much.
MD: We want to hear from you, how have you or your organization been involved in the net neutrality issue? What are your concerns? Have you been organizing others to get involved? Email us at email@example.com.
TM: You're listening to Field Notes in Philanthropy.
MD: We want to welcome to the conversation, Larra Clark, who's the deputy director for the Public Library Association and the American Library Association’s Office of Information Technology Policy. Larra has this distinguished career in the policy arena for libraries and we're really honored to have you, um, join us.
LC: I am very happy to be here with you. Thanks for inviting me.
MD: Great. So I know that, you know, this issue of net neutrality has broadened. I'm not so sure that… which this is probably common to a lot with librarie…. that libraries are the first thing that people think of as active participants are being really engaged in the net neutrality issue. And so can you just talk about that for a little bit and sort of what are the many ways that libraries are actually at the forefront of advocating for net neutrality?
LC: Sure. Well, I think the thing that people do know about libraries, for instance, is that we are strong proponents, uh, for free expression and intellectual freedom. We fight censorship wherever we find it, and I think we have some concerns related to that with network neutrality and the power the internet service providers will have as gatekeepers of information. So I think that's the first most obvious link. The ALA [American Library Association] has been working on this issue for more than a decade, this is not new, although it's more visible to people now. And our primary concern is that these broadband internet access providers have financial incentives to interfere with the openness of the Internet in ways that are likely to be harmful to people who use the internet, including libraries. And we worry that it will get in the way of our ability to fulfill our public mission, which I can imagine is also a concern for many of your nonprofits. Um, we believe the open internet is a vital platform for free speech. Um, and we cannot afford to have internet service providers acting as gatekeepers for online content and services. Some of that, that we create, some of that, that we broker, um, through our digital collections, um, and that we have a financial interest in um, not needing to pay more to digital content providers or to pay more for our ability to reach people. As well as this really strong core value related to um, equitable access to online information for all and to free expression and intellectual freedom and that ability for people to use this platform not only as consumers of information but also creators and distributors.
TM: Because libraries are actually also sort of at the core of the nonprofit sector. Right? I mean, if you…
TM: That's the other side of, of ways that people think about libraries, I think it's, it's one of those great public assets that people sort of take for granted and therefore don't remember to think about where they came from and how they're supported, and I mean libraries offer a wealth of services to communities nationwide that we might not be aware of and support for nonprofits. That's right, right?
LC: That is absolutely right. There's a couple of things. Actually, public libraries in this country are formed in a variety of ways. They can be a city department or a county department, but some of them are actually incorporated as nonprofit. So there were some libraries that exist as public agencies as a part of your local government, but there are also libraries that exist actually as true nonprofits in how there are incorporated. And there are many libraries that have nonprofit foundations and friends’ groups that also directly support our mission. So we, we are part of the nonprofit community and we also provide support to nonprofit organizations including like the Foundation cCenter and access to resources related to philanthropy. So we have a really strong relationship to the nonprofit community and they're also our partners in so much of the work that we do in our communities.
We, we depend on our public partners, but also our nonprofit partners and our philanthropists who have supported internet access through things like the Gates Foundation as well as an informed community through organizations like the Knight Foundation and local philanthropy all around the country has directly supported our libraries.
MD: We have, um, several of those Foundation Center collections and the database in libraries in Michigan and some in very rural communities, um, and the nonprofits there have access to that information by a very, very great public library that's in a very rural community and I love that. Those resources are there, libraries make that all available. That's great.
LC: Yeah, and I think the amazing thing about what the internet has enabled for libraries and for other institutions is it allows us to keep our doors open all the time, around the clock. Right? So if you have a student who's working on their homework at midnight or 1:00 as they sometimes do, um, the library and its research resources are available to them around the clock. And that's true for the public presence, for our nonprofits, for our foundations, that they're, they're open for business online around the clock, thanks to what the broadband enabled us to do.
And that's really important um, particularly as we grow our digital collections and resources and our digital services. Everything from, you know, a 9/11 oral history project to streaming music from local musicians. That allows us to share that local creativity through our libraries, to um, libraries in higher education and universities like yours where we have data repositories and we have online collaboration and all these high-capacity services. When we think about streaming media and ebooks and audio and online tutoring. All of these collections take bandwidth and when you're concerned about bandwidth and you also become concerned about the internet as a neutral platform for getting access to this information.
MD: So the other day, literally on a Saturday, I got caught in like this loop, this trap on the University of California Library website because they have this database of these strange ‘80s art films that local artists made, and they're very bizarre and I sat for hours watching them and I thought, you know, this is my right to sit here and watch these videos from the library. And it's their right to provide them to me and, and these artists to communicate what they were trying to communicate. And I, first thing I thought about with libraries and net neutrality is I thought, “I might not be able to do that in the future.”
LC: When you think about those kinds of kind of quirky and unique collections that many libraries are making available and sometimes with other their nonprofit partners, right? Like where we're telling the history of a community or of an art or where we're supporting local filmmakers and local musicians to make their materials more readily available. If you think about that in context with large digital providers, even the best of them, right? Like if we think about National Geographic for instance, you know, like, if they have more resources to push that content than your, you know, local film festival or your quirky curated content by an arts librarian, then people notice that, right? Like people notice when they're getting content more slowly and they pick the content that will get to them faster. So when we see these kinds of threats, then we really do see that we're putting, that it's possible for someone to put their thumb on the scale for one content provider who's paying for prioritized access over a nonprofit or a noncommercial provider.
TM: And when you also think about the services that are being shared, the information that's being shared, I mean the number of nonprofits and foundations who need data and use census data, or perhaps data that's being put out by the Gates Foundation on a malaria efforts in Africa, for instance. They need that information to make an argument about the work that they do and to understand whether or not they're having an impact in the work that they do. And if they don't have access to that information quickly or you know, equitably, that's a tremendous potential roadblock for the work that we do, and how we understand the work that we do, and how communities figure out whether or not there's someone else out there who's experiencing the same problem and needs help and let's band together and create a solution. All of those minute access points, many of which are physically and digitally housed in libraries, would just be sort of up for grabs.
LC: Yeah. I think you know there…I think one of the struggles that we've had in this debate in some ways is that we can't really know what the world will look like without net neutrality protection. Even though the regulations have changed over the last decade and we've had several different ways of approaching how to protect an open internet, you know, there's been the scrutiny on this issue. So for all of this time, you know, people have been on better behavior, right? And so I think this question of “what will it look like without these protections, without having a cop on the beat to make sure that Internet service providers are not blocking or throttling or prioritizing some content over others?” You know, we don't know what that will look like when we think about access to Census data or access digital content, digital collections. Folks say like, “why would we do that? If you don't, if you don't like our service, you'll go somewhere else.” Well, one of the things that we've known for a very long time is that we have pretty lousy competition in terms of broadband, particularly when we think about the high speeds at schools and libraries and colleges and universities need to do our work. There are very few competitors in that area and when we think about smaller and rural communities, there's even fewer.
So we don't really have great competition to start with. And I think if we look at the potential mergers that we're seeing in terms of Internet service providers and digital content providers, I think we also run up against the concern about, there's a financial incentive to prioritize content that's affiliated with a provider. It’s obviously in their benefit to promote the programs that they gain financial support from. And there's a real incentive to put their thumb on the scale in terms of what people have access to. Once you buy your broadband – because we all pay different prices for different speeds of broadband now. And that is not the question. Like when I get my 10 megabits or I get my gigabit of service and I pay more, if I'm getting a Gig, then I should be able to choose whatever comes to me. And that's fundamentally what we're talking about is that the consumer is able to choose the content that they, um, once they get online, they can have complete access to everything the internet can bring them, whether it's from a very small or a quirky provider to the Comcast or to NBC Universal or whatever content they're set.
MD: Even though we haven't, we don't know what this world really looks like because we haven't experienced it with this, you know, the non-neutral internet. But, I…there are other countries that we can turn to for how they've dealt with a respondent or try to be out in front of this issue. And uh, you know, with countries that have kept the internet affordable and neutral and the benefits and you see, you know, a thriving economy, you see people are able to get the jobs they need and access the information that they need from anywhere in the country. And I'm always impressed by libraries and the role that libraries play in minimizing the digital divide and how many people in a community go to the library because that's their access to the Internet. And that's what they're doing to go find a job and then the librarians are there to help them sort of navigate finding a job and there's just all these benefits to what the library plays in helping people sort of solve their personal challenges. And it's through the Internet.
LC: Yeah, I mean, I think we're starting in a, in a ditch, right, already. There's too many people that don't have broadband access at all, right? So we're starting. We have a significant…millions of people are not connected right now and then for many more millions, they may have um, the access, but they can't afford it. Or they have access, but they don't have the skills. So there's all these pieces. And then the other piece that I think is really relevant to the network neutrality conversation, as well, is relevant content and services. If you've never had the internet than what's a good for and how do you know that? And so making the case for folks and the libraries can be this really great on-ramp and a launching pad for people to explore the Internet and see like, wow, I can do my online banking here, I can access government services. You know, I was just on a phone call with the Census and they will have an online process for their enumerators as we go into the 2020 Census. People are applying for jobs online and so all of this is changing and for folks that have been offline, they may not have direct experience.
So the library is really a place where they come, they can get started, they can gain skills and they can understand the power of the Internet. If they haven't been online yet. And for people who are online, then the library can really serve more as this creative, innovative space to even bring their new businesses online. And we're seeing a lot of that in libraries with makerspaces and coworking spaces that we're really building economic opportunity in a variety of ways that continue to change as the internet enables new kinds of opportunities for people.
MD: That's powerful.
TM: It is. And you know, I think that that, that physical-digital symbiosis is a really interesting part of this, and why libraries are such a great reference place for this, and to think about net neutrality in terms of libraries because… So back in June 2016, the UN Human Rights Council actually essentially added internet access to the list of basic human rights and said that it is, essentially, they passed a nonbinding regulation condemning countries that intentionally disrupt or censor Internet service and their residents’ access to the Internet. So they're basically saying, this, the basic human right exists. It's of incalculable value to individuals and communities. And so you have to have the same rights online as you have offline. All of the intricate little pieces of information and resources and data sets and software tools and job boards that you can find physically in the library space, you can also find digitally. And, of course, digitally, they are exponentially greater. But it's about this notion that, I'm not going to walk you into a library and say, “you can look at all the books on the shelf, but you have to wait 20 minutes before you can look at the books on this shelf.” You know, like that, that's such a kind of basic tenant of have a library of that kind of open information, community space. You get to look at what you want to look at, you know, with various age restrictions, but like you get to look at whatever is of use to you, and why should the Internet be any different?
LC: Well, I think that's the power of the Internet, right? Like when we think about life-changing revolution, right? And these, these innovations that have changed how we live our lives, thinking about electricity, thinking about telephones. I mean the idea that somebody, you know, the electric company or the telephone company would decide who you can reach and who you can't reach, or that they would say you can reach this person faster than this other person. I mean that… it undermines the entire idea of the service that's being offered. And the Internet is so deeply embedded in our lives now, and it really is a true barrier. I mean, I was, I was in Arizona recently and I needed to transfer car registration and the whole letter I got from the motor vehicle department said, here's… you go online. There was no phone number.
LC: There was no way to reach a human being unless I went down to the office. And there are so many things within government, within, with even with in our, you know, our, our public institutions and… So really the only way to have access to some information services…to make, or to make an appointment with an immigration officer... When you think about the barriers that people face, whether it's language or you know, Internet access, all of these pieces come together and the idea of the, of people having the same rights online if they have offline just makes a ton of sense to me and to our members. It's just, it's so critical to almost everything that we're doing these days and that, that trend is not going to, that trend is not going to change. It's only going to become more common.
MD: You know, I was just thinking, um I…at a job in my past, I worked at the Queensboro Public Library and – there are 65 branches to this library, it’s the world's largest library, right? – And one of the branches was in a neighborhood in Queens that is predominantly Korean. And there's, at this particular branch, they had more than a million people visit this library, every branch every year. And they have, uh, the Koreans are lifelong learners and they study their culture and their history throughout their life. It's a big part of their culture. And so, knowing this, Queensboro Public Library had acquired some wonderful and rare historic artifacts that you can't even get in Korea and made them available at the branch of the library, some online, for, um, new Americans who are from Korea and living in this neighborhood, could come and be able to continue their cultural practice of lifelong learning and studying about the history of Korea and the culture. And um sort of, high-res available on the Internet. And I always thought that was just a beautiful way that the library was able to acknowledge these new Americans and help them get adjusted to living here, and still be supportive of, of who they are as people and, and, and their culture and it just kind of, for these unsung things that libraries do for Americans. And a lot of it, more and more is online, and we certainly wouldn't want to see that go away.
LC: Yeah. And I think, you know, when we think about empowering more people to not only get information from the Internet but to create and share information. You know, you think about immigrant communities, but you also think about native American communities where we're trying to preserve language and history and documents and part of how we do that is digitally as well as through our physical collection. And enabling people to share in their native languages also brings more people online because they go, “oh, I want that content. That speaks to me directly.” And I think that's really important. And that is critical to so many of the nonprofits that I've come into contact with over time. And it’s certainly essential to libraries in order to really build these valuable community collections that, you know, one of the, one of the libraries in Tennessee's Oak Ridge Public Library, right? Like that's where they worked on the first atomic bomb. So they have this oral history project with interviews of all these local folks talking about that work. And we're losing these people, right? Like lots of people that were part of this history are, are no longer with us, but we're able to maintain that history and that culture, whether it's, uh, that Korean community, or it's a native American community and preserving those languages and those histories it’s incredible. I mean, when we think about libraries as a place of youth community treasure chests, as well as these community meeting places, I think that all comes together. And what, I think, Tory was talking about that physical and the digital hybrid and what that means today, but also what it will mean tomorrow for the people that come that come after us.
TM: Well Laura, thank you so much for joining us. This has been really wonderful. And I'm going to go to my library now.
LC: You can, you can go to your library physically, you can go to your library online, download a book, find some research, check out the Foundation Center,
MD: Or a quirky 80's art film.
LC: Quirky 80's art film! There is so much cool stuff. Look at your alma mater. If you have access through your university, your college, or you graduated, a lot of times their library makes available these incredibly cool collections in addition to what you can find at your public library. So, please. We welcome you. Millions of people are coming to our libraries every, every year and we really have something for everyone. Bring your kids, bring your grandparents, come on by.
TM: Very cool. Well, thank you very much. I'm sure, we'll, uh, we'll have you on again.
LC: Oh, I would love that.
Woman’s Voice: Field Notes in Philanthropy is a partnership of WGVU Public Media, the Dorothy A Johnson Center for philanthropy and Grand Valley State University. Our technical producer is Rick Bierling. Joe Moran composed our theme music. The views and opinions expressed on Field Notes in Philanthropy do not necessarily reflect those of WGVU, the Dorothy A Johnson Center for Philanthropy or Grand Valley State University.
MD: We want to hear from you. [BEEP]