Besieged by a swarm of lobbyists and mind-numbing legalese, many believed the days of an open, unbiased Internet were certainly numbered. However, despite the best attempts of cable and telecommunications giants to sugar coat their agendas and dispel concerns, the debate over net neutrality raged on, sparking an immense amount of passion.
Indeed, over 4 million comments flooded the FCC, with citizens from all walks of life vehemently voicing their outrage. Fortunately, these cries did not fall on deaf ears. With the recent decision to classify broadband as a public utility, activists, startup companies and Silicon Valley darlings like Twitter are all united in celebration. Yet, as this piece will explain, the real winner is the future of education.
Although one of the most fundamental free speech issues of our time, some understandable confusion remains around just what exactly “net neutrality” entails. Sure, the name sounds good, but it’s so cloaked in legal language that sifting through the details requires a considerable amount of patience. Still, at its core, net neutrality is just as simple as the name implies. In essence, it’s a guarantee that regardless of whether you’re a Fortune 500 company or someone down on their luck desperately searching for a job at a public library, you’ll experience access to the same Internet. Sounds perfectly reasonable, right? Unfortunately, the nation’s largest ISPs fail to agree.
Without net neutrality, industry leaders like Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner could hypothetically increase their profit margins by splitting the Internet into two very distinct categories: the ultra fast and the intolerably slow. Granted, all three companies emphatically deny plans of doing so. Nevertheless, it isn’t too hard to imagine a scenario where the desire to please investors wins out over some sense of civic responsibility
Detractors argue that the free market is perfectly capable of correcting the situation should it arise, but that logic is based on the false assumption of consumer choice. For most service areas, options for high-speed Internet are extremely limited. In light of this, government regulation remains the only viable solution.
Last year, net neutrality appeared destined to become a thing of the past, with its legal framework overturned on a technicality. The issue stemmed from the FCC’s classification of broadband as an information service, instead of the far more accurate title of a telecommunications service. The problem with this is that the FCC possess zero authority to regulate the former. Michael Powell, ex chairman of the FCC, played a fundamental role in this false classification. He has since become one of the foremost lobbyists for big cable.
Things got even worse for champions of net neutrality when new rules were proposed last year that seemingly granted ISPs the ability to price gouge as they please. Of course, the Internet wasn’t going to take this laying down. Being a former telecommunications lobbyist himself, current chairman Tom Wheeler instantly became a pariah, with comedian John Oliver’s comparison of him to a baby eating dingo going massively viral. Instead of getting angry or remaining silent, Wheeler displayed a sense of humor and a willingness to admit when he’s wrong.
In a move that radiates integrity, he conceded to public opinion by proposing the strongest net neutrality rules ever seen. With hands locked before the vote last Thursday, the three Democratic commissioners made history as broadband Internet officially became a public utility. Once considered an unthinkable “nuclear option”, enforcement of net neutrality under title II is now a reality.
There once was a time when higher education, even literacy itself was reserved only for the elite. Now, we live in an age where those in underprivileged, remote communities have access to the same information taught to Ivy League students. The Internet, more than any other technology, has ushered in this democratization of learning. With enough patience and persistence, no concept is now beyond the grasp of an inquisitive mind.
Udemy CEO, Dennis Yang, has witnessed first hand how liberating this free flowing exchange of knowledge can be. Presiding over a company that’s found huge success by connecting students to teachers, he undoubtedly provides a unique, highly relevant perspective on the educational importance of net neutrality. Below, you’ll find excerpts from an interview we conducted shortly before the FCC’s decision.
Edudemic: Why does net neutrality matter to ed tech companies?
Dennis: “Net neutrality represents the preservation of an open Internet and our ability to communicate freely online. At Udemy, our mission is to help anyone learn anything. To achieve that, we rely on the fastest possible Internet speeds to deliver content to people around the world who need and want it. Preserving net neutrality is simply the right thing to do.”
Edudemic: How will the ruling affect what Ed Tech Companies can do both positively and negatively?
Dennis: “Preserving a free and open Internet is in the best interest of all of us. Students should have equal access to online resources without worrying about overcoming obstacles related to slow Internet speeds. Paid prioritization is a threat to our users’ ability to easily access the knowledge available through our online marketplace.”
Edudemic: How will the outcome affect student and school access?
Dennis: “Internet regulation poses a threat to brick and mortar schools that seek to enrich students by incorporating the Internet into lesson plans. Given that more institutions of learning than ever are weaving innovation into their curricula, these net neutrality developments are of utmost importance to all of us who care about education.”
Edudemic: How have you seen online education change the face of global education?
Dennis: “Online education makes skills development and training accessible to everyone – as long as the Internet remains accessible in its own right. As more people embrace a lifelong learning mindset, we at Udemy see people across the world share their expertise and acquire new skills through online platforms like ours.”
Post Verdict Response
Dennis: ”We are thrilled by today’s vote by the FCC to support a free and open Internet. Net neutrality ensures internet-based companies and ventures of all kinds will be able to compete, a profound benefit to society. Companies like Udemy are dependent upon the fastest possible Internet speeds to power a great experience for our users and we join the chorus of Americans congratulating the FCC on its decision to apply the same values that make America great to the internet: liberty and fairness.”
Regardless of the oppositional rhetoric, net neutrality should not be dismissed as some hipster crusade fueled by Netflix; it’s about maintaining the integrity of a utility that’s become the lifeblood of 21st Century progress. With teachers rushing to accommodate the unprecedented needs of today’s students, its absence would only serve to punish those already under the strain of tight educational budgets.
Considering cable and telecommunications companies spent over $40 million on lobbying last year alone, it isn’t too much of a shock to discover plans are already being formulated to fight the FCC’s decision. Even less of a surprise, the sole fact that President Obama openly supports net neutrality guarantees a steady supply of partisan venom. Oddly enough, much of the fiercest opposition comes from those who have no qualms about Uncle Sam ensuring food safety or overseeing nuclear weapons; yet somehow, they are deeply offended by the FCC’s enforcement of net neutrality. Indeed, the new rules are already being painted as a glorified takeover of the Internet; a Machiavellian scheme designed to raise taxes and usher in totalitarianism.
Nonetheless, even the strongest detractors in Congress reluctantly admit that overturning the decision via legislation is extremely unlikely. That, of course, brings us to the courts. Now that net neutrality is backed by the full force of the government, its fate rests solely on the sturdiness of its legal foundation. Be that as it may, both Congress and the Supreme Court have already granted the FCC sufficient authority to act. In fact, the same court that overturned the 2010 regulations openly suggested the agency establish new rules under title II. With the FCC embracing self-imposed restrictions and taking a “light touch” approach, a defeat in the courts seems highly unlikely.
No, net neutrality won’t suddenly give consumers more choice for high speed Internet, nor will it put an end to the polarizing debate over the role of government. What it will do, however, is ensure the web remains an uncorrupted medium for commercial innovation, self expression and the pursuit of knowledge.
Much like the railroad tycoons of the Gilded Age, those fortunate enough to be at the helm of this transformational industry are granted tremendous amounts of power. Thankfully, as plagued by partisan bickering and bureaucratic inefficiency as our political system may be, America’s heart usually ends up in the right place. Let’s hope this time that place continues to be free, open and fair.