Internet reforms could limit low-income consumers to ‘slow lane’

Internet users at libraries and schools, which may be unable to pay higher costs for faster service, could give up on sharing and receiving vital information online.  “It really is a matter of free speech,” said American Library Association President Barbara Stripling. [Photo illustration by Tomislav Pinter/Shutterstock]

Internet users at libraries and schools, which may be unable to pay higher costs for faster service, could give up on sharing and receiving vital information online. “It really is a matter of free speech,” said American Library Association President Barbara Stripling. [Photo illustration by Tomislav Pinter/Shutterstock]

One third of Chicago residents lack Internet service at home because of its high price. Instead, they access content on smartphones or at public places, such as libraries and schools.

A proposal put forth by the Federal Communications Commission would allow Internet providers, like Comcast and Verizon, to charge content creators higher fees for faster delivery, essentially creating a fast lane for companies like Netflix, Disney and Google and a slow lane for those who can’t afford it.

“It’s an issue that challenges the heart of the Internet,” said Jon Gant, director for the Center of Digital Inclusion at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. “It has the potential down the road of saying there could be a two-tiered Internet.”

In April, four months after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit partially struck down the FCC’s Open Internet Order, the agency proposed new rules to allow service providers to charge for prioritizing traffic. Netflix and Comcast had already made a deal in February to stream Netflix’s content faster.

While the new proposal bans discrimination by content type, it gives the fast lane to companies that can pay more instead of allowing open access to all content providers — a term called net neutrality, which the initial Open Internet Order was designed to protect. The FCC’s public comment period, which ended Monday, garnered approximately 3.7 million responses, more than double the previous high of 1.4 million comments on Janet Jackson’s wardobe malfunction during the Super Bowl halftime show in 2004. Comments heavily favored the preserving net neutrality.

The regulatory debate has recently extended to include wireless network providers, as well.

“Now we need to make sure [information on the Internet is] not blocked or slowed down,” American Library Association President Barbara Stripling said. “When people don’t have access, they don’t have the opportunity to practice digital literacy skills.”

Without net neutrality, some users’ educational opportunities could be affected. While more affluent schools may be able to pay for high-speed access for their content, schools and libraries with fewer resources may not.

“Non-powerful institutions like libraries, academic institutions and people of low-income are going to be deprived of open information and the opportunity to share information on the Internet,” Stripling said. “It really is a matter of free speech.”

Slower delivery of content could also limit economic opportunities for people who rely on libraries to use the Internet. According to Patrick Molloy, director of government and public affairs for Chicago Public Library, patrons most often seek assistance with job searches and digital literacy.

In fact, two out of five people who use library computers for financial reasons, such as job-seeking, resume preparation and paying bills, come from low- and moderate-income households, according to the U.S. Impact Study.

Other groups, including small news organizations, nonprofits and religious organizations, may be left with slower service if the cost of high-speed streaming rises.

As the Internet has become a tool for business and advertising, small businesses may find it more difficult to grow. Companies who can afford the fast lane may take priority over smaller businesses that can’t.

“The Internet was built on the premise of being a place for anyone who wants access to get access,” Gant said. “There should be no discrimination in terms of speed and traffic of the content. It would allow for premiums to be paid to get preference on the topic.”

At this year’s Rainbow PUSH Convention, Mignon Clyburn, an FCC commissioner, said that consumers, not providers, should decide what they want to access online.

“A company should not dictate to you what you can access,” Clyburn said. “It’s about empowering you as a consumer and not leaving some critical decisions to the company.”

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