Why Teachers Are The Sleeping Giant In The Fight For Net Neutrality
by Terry Heick
On December 14th, 2017, the FCC plans to vote on a movement to end net neutrality.
While I recall wistfully my childhood without an internet and texting and selfies and smartphones, that time is gone. Today, the internet is as much a part of life as electricity.
This (short) article is a mess—a mixing of metaphors and sidebars cobbled together as a single post—so bear with me. I just have an idea and there’s a lot to explain. If you know all about net neutrality, skip to ‘The Part for Teachers’ at the end.
Why The Internet Matters
The ‘internet’ (as opposed to intranet) is just a simple framework.
Let’s think of this in terms of biolumine scence. Imagine a world in which lightning bugs (I believe some of you less particular with your language might refer to them as fireflies) didn’t blink. They just floated around in the thick purple ether of a summer evening, wings drumming soundlessly.
Because they can’t see very far and don’t fly in swarms, the life of a lightning bug would’ve been very lonely, their connections limited to the scattered few around them they could see. Now, imagine one day that one started blinking, sending out brief flashes of ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ and ‘who are you?’ And then another—and another. Imagine all of the lighting bugs could actually connect with one another, their blinking a ceaseless and soothing rhythm and the rhythm was so strong they couldn’t help but pulse with light.
Today very little of the ‘internet’ comes off that poetic but we’re very early on in this deal. We are bringing non-digital and non-social habits and values and norms to a digital ecology that requires new thinking. In 250 years, Facebook fights and YouTube comments from the early 2000s will (hopefully) reflect how poorly we leveraged this newfound technology.
Who Controls Information?
Which is why it is important to keep it ‘neutral’ as it grows.
The internet changed functionally when ‘Google’ became synonymous with ‘internet’ in the same way that computers changed when we began to think of ‘using a computer’ through the concept of an operating system (e.g. Microsoft Windows). Today, optimizing your content’ for Google (i.e., SEO) has a bigger impact on who finds what than even broadband access does. In fact, the speed in which information is delivered (through a webpage) is increasingly a factor in usability and discoverability.
While we could argue that the ‘neutrality’ of the internet disappeared as soon as corporations realized how much money there was to be made and have since spent billions of dollars streamlining ‘internet users’ towards their products and away from those of their competitors, what’s being proposed now is something far more sinister: the ability for internet providers themselves to influence who finds and uses what information.
Let’s mix the metaphors further: Imagine a garden hose connected to a lawn sprinkler that was setup to water the entire yard. Imagine someone altering the landscape around certain patches of grass to make it more likely that water might reach their little patch of grass. That’s what’s happening today when publishers of content (whether a teenage YouTuber, education podcaster, or corporate website) hope to be ‘found’ through google.
What’s At Stake
But the vote on December 14th would make this kind of ‘bias’ seem downright democratic. The end of net neutrality would put internet service companies like Comcast (or Time- Warner or Spectrum or whatever they call themselves) and Verizon right at the spigot itself, pinching and opening and closing and altering the flow of water altogether. Maybe even creating multiple hoses so that ‘favored’ content would get a larger hose and more water.
Obviously, that’s bad.
There is little in the world that isn’t directly affected by free and equal access to information. I wrote about this in April in ‘What Is Net Neutrality?” On Nov 22, Wired Magazine outline possible scenarios.
“Because many internet services for mobile devices include limits on data use, the changes will be visible there first. In one dramatic scenario, internet services would begin to resemble cable-TV packages, where subscriptions could be limited to a few dozen sites and services. Or, for big spenders, a few hundred. Fortunately, that’s not a likely scenario. Instead, expect a gradual shift towards subscriptions that provide unlimited access to certain preferred providers while charging extra for everything else.”
In I’m on the FCC. Please Stop Us From Killing Net Neutrality, an FCC board member pleaded for a civic and democratic response.
“Before my fellow FCC members vote to dismantle net neutrality, they need to get out from behind their desks and computers and speak to the public directly. The FCC needs to hold hearings around the country to get a better sense of how the public feels about the proposal.
When they do this, they will likely find that, outside of a cadre of high-paid lobbyists and lawyers in Washington, there isn’t a constituency that likes this proposal. In fact, the FCC will probably discover that they have angered the public and caused them to question just whom the agency works for.
I think the FCC needs to work for the public, and therefore that this proposal needs to be slowed down and eventually stopped. In the time before the agency votes, anyone who agrees should do something old-fashioned: Make a ruckus.”
The Part For Teachers & Students
So here’s the part for teachers and students based on a kind of sequence of premises.
1. The effect of education should be primarily visible outside of school (in civic participation for example, making an informed ‘ruckus’)
2. The internet will play a larger role in the future of children than it will for us, if for no other reason than biology: They’re going to live longer, which means that the more successful they are biologically, the more their lives will be affected by non-biological ‘things.’
3. One of the primary goals of education is for students to understand things and why they matter.
4. The internet, increasingly, matters.
5. It makes sense then that educators should help children understand ‘the internet’ (its neutrality, for example). Most people don’t fully understand net neutrality, only thinking of it generally as ‘good’ or ‘bad.’
This can happen through content areas—thinking about information and internet access like mathematicians and authors and historians and artists. Help students understand. Co-design projects (project-based learning) with them. Help them shape their world.
6. Teachers are understanding experts. There is no other organization, corporation, brand, or public infrastructure with more power to change the world than public education. There are more children than politicians.
7. Families are ‘the masses’ and informed masses change the world.
8. Teachers inform their masses so that those masses may change their world.