A librarian's guide to net neutrality

Phil Bradley explains what net neutrality means - and why information professionals should care.

Net neutrality is often in the news, but unless you're particularly interested in how the internet works you've probably glazed over! However, it's a really important issue to understand, because if we don't have net neutrality the internet will become a completely different place, virtually unrecognisable.

A definition of net neutrality
Wikipedia defines net neutrality as "the principle that internet service providers treat all data on the internet the same, and not discriminate or charge differently by user, content, website, platform, application, type of attached equipment, or method of communication." https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Net_neutrality).

The library context
Let’s break this down a little bit and put it into a library context, which is really easy to do. In a public library you can take out any book that you like which is available for borrowing, without paying a fee. However, you may have to pay to borrow a CD or a DVD. Even if the actual information in that DVD was the same as you found in a book, or you were to borrow the audio tape of a book, which is exactly the same story, you might have to pay. There is a basic discrimination due to the format of the information. Now, let’s take this further; suppose one publisher was able to strike a deal with all the libraries in the UK that if people wanted to borrow their books they would have to either pay a fee to do so, or perhaps that they could borrow their publications immediately, but the books published by other publishing houses couldn't be taken out at once – the borrower would need to tell the librarian they wanted the book and – even though it was available on the shelves – they would need to come back the next day to take it out.

That's essentially what net neutrality is all about. All forms of information, websites and activities would be treated differently. Your internet service provider would be paid to provide fast access to the website and film trailers of one production company but if you wanted to see the site and trailers of another, it would take longer to download the information. This then leads onto a situation where users may be expected – as in the case of cable television – to buy into different ‘channels’ of information. So basic internet searching would be free but if you wanted to view YouTube videos you would have to purchase ‘the video pack’, or the ‘email pack’, or the ‘games pack’, the ‘social media pack’ and so on. If you didn’t pay, you either wouldn’t get access at all, or it would be at a slower or reduced rate.

It’s a very tempting prospect for some companies, because they could not only make a lot of money out of the ending of net neutrality, but it would also stifle competition from other organisations who were not able to pay in order to get their site, application or product onto a fast track.

Unfortunately, all this is happening in the United States, and there’s little that we can do directly to affect the issue but you can at least keep a close and hopefully better informed eye on what is going on.

Phil Bradley is an internet consultant specialising in internet search and social media for the library and information profession. He is co-Chair of Internet Librarian International and the author of Expert Internet Searching, now in its fifth edition.