Net Neutrality and Digital Publishing

laptop, book, and cell phone, stacked and bound by a chain
Censorship, public domain via Pixabay

It doesn’t seem right, given my role in and advocacy of web-based digital scholarship, not to say something about the ongoing fight for net neutrality. If you’ve been following the news regarding net neutrality (regarding a lot of things actually), you know we’re facing dangerous times. The recent rollback of regulations on internet service providers, regulations that ensure net neutrality and equal access to all web content, poses a serious threat to anyone creating web content. A December interview with two Stanford “net neutrality experts” captures the intense response to the rollback. Now, a month later, twenty-one states and the District of Columbia are suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reinstate the previous rules and regulations. But in the meantime, creators and supporters of digital work are facing some very real threats.

Many digital humanists and social scientists are using the affordances of the web to disseminate important scholarly research. This dissemination then fosters further discussion and scholarly arguments, many of which are likewise articulated in online spaces. Many such scholars host their own sites, and many others collaborate with their institutional libraries and centers to ensure their digital work remains accessible for future researchers. Net neutrality is of critical importance to the universities and libraries that are stewards of this work.

So how might the end of net neutrality affect digital scholarly publishing?

From my personal point of view, net neutrality is a big deal. It ensures publishers can provide, if they choose, cutting edge scholarly arguments to online readers. Without a neutral delivery space, where all content is equal, it’s the internet service providers (ISPs)—those charging consumers more for certain kinds of content—that make the money, while authors and publishers could in turn be driven to pay those same ISPs to keep that content open-access or affordable. In the days leading up to the repeal of net neutrality on December 14, 2017, the Association of University Presses, along with “a broad swath of public interest, racial justice, artist, library, and other organizations” signed an open letter demanding the continuation of regulations, emphasizing, among other points, that to repeal those regulations would be “especially damaging to individuals and communities that have historically struggled to share their stories.”

From my particular point of view as someone working on a grant-funded project to publish web-based interactive scholarship, it’s even more complex an issue. The repeal of net neutrality could limit access, at least in the United States, to important scholarly arguments like those I’m helping to publish. Consider, for example, a scenario where certain types of web content would be offered by ISPs in packages much like cable TV packages that bundle sports channels into the “Ultimate Red Zone Fan Pack” or news channels into the “News Heads 24/7” or educational and science channels into the “Explore Galore.” In such a system, where would web services like Github or OpenStreetMap fall? What about sites that simply pull in data or streaming video through APIs or iframes? Will the contents of one tier have to be compatible with that of another to get the full picture?

Would a Trump-empowered marketplace package up any university or library content under a certain tier of service? Would one need to buy the likely-named “Academic Elite” package in order to access or even discover content from sites hosted by such organizations? The repeal of net neutrality allows internet service providers to do just that. This raises the question: what’s in it for a giant telecommunications conglomerate to provide free access to the kind of content, often university or academically supported, that has the potential to call them out for oligarchical tyranny?

The scenarios can quickly become pretty terrifying, but there are other factors as well. In a landscape where the individual scholar doesn’t have the personal financial means of reaching her audience, it may be that publishing through a university press or hosting on an institutional server could make her project more discoverable or accessible than hosting a project on one’s own. It could mean that more scholars will need to depend on libraries or publishing programs like the one I get the chance to work on to keep their work safe and keep it circulating. Such programs are already slow in developing, though, exactly because the cost of implementing and maintaining them is a challenge. In an environment where non-profits and academic institutions are already starved for support, we simply can’t afford to lose one of the most promising outlets for scholarly communication.

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