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Viewpoint: Intellectual Freedom


Net Neutrality

In a recent Pew Research Center survey, researchers set out to assess the Web IQ of respondents (Smith, 2014). The survey was short, consisting of only 17 technology-related questions ranging from defining what URL stands for to answering a multiple choice question defining the meaning of net neutrality. You can take the survey yourself and compare your answers to the nationally representative sample of 1,066 respondents. Surprisingly, 61 percent of respondents answered correctly that “net neutrality” refers to the equal treatment of digital content. This percentage only varies by one or two points across the age ranges of 18-65 plus.

The survey did not address current politics regarding net neutrality, but the high number of correct answers is inspiring and revealing. The basic concept of net neutrality has likely started to permeate into the living rooms and awareness fields of technology users of all ages. However, the sample size of the study was small and this in no way indicates that many people understand the deeper, political implications of net neutrality. So, if you didn’t watch the nearly 14-minute look at net neutrality on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Oliver, 2014), read on for some of the basics regarding this topic.

Senator Al Franken refers to net neutrality as the “First Amendment issue of our time” for a reason (Hattem, 2014). The Pew Research study suggests Americans understand the basic concept of the issue, but does Congress? A broader definition of net neutrality involves more than just equal treatment of digital content--it involves cooperation from Internet service providers and the FCC to mandate that digital content is treated equally and that free passes on faster speeds are not given to customers of certain providers. For example, one of the most recent infringements on net neutrality involves cellular service provider T-Mobile. On its media relations page, T-Mobile boasts that their new music streaming program (unveiled this summer and featuring 14 new additions as of November 24) allows customers to benefit from a deal T-Mobile has made with 27 music streaming services to download unlimited amounts of music without paying data usage charges. T-Mobile president and CEO John Legere states, “Music Freedom is pro-consumer, pro-music and pure Un-carrier, and today we’re taking another huge step toward our ultimate goal of including every streaming music service in the program. Anyone can play. No one pays. And everyone wins” (T-Mobile, 2014). The press announcement claims that the streaming service providers also do not pay to have this red carpet treatment they call “Music Freedom” and that there are no “backroom deals,” so this would be why “everybody wins.”

Well, not exactly. A recent Techdirt article uncovers the obvious flaws in T-Mobile’s smoke and mirrors plan (Bode, 2014). Though T-Mobile claims there wasn’t a backroom deal to provide this service, there are definitely implications that customers of these popular music streaming services could change their cellular service to T-Mobile because of this deal. This is not equal treatment of content available on the Internet and is definitely a violation of the concept of net neutrality, despite the consumer brainwashing subtext in T-Mobile’s press release. This pits streaming giants against the smaller or non-profit streaming services, thus making the net an unbalanced playing field for ALL streaming music services. And this is due to just one company in the vastness of big-money cellular and Internet service providers. These “deals” will multiply if the FCC doesn’t make a definitive ruling on the state of net neutrality.

To give a little background, the FCC has historically wavered on their stance and definition of net neutrality. In 2010, the FCC released the Open Internet Order (Federal Communications Commission, 2010), “which established high-level rules requiring transparency and prohibiting blocking and unreasonable discrimination to protect Internet openness” (Federal Communications Commission, n.d.). Verizon challenged the Open Internet Order in federal court and, as detailed on the FCC Open Internet page, “the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit affirmed the Commission's authority to regulate broadband Internet access service and upheld the Commission's judgment that Internet openness encourages broadband investment and that its absence could ultimately inhibit broadband deployment" (FCC, n.d.).

At this point, the concept of demolishing a competitive marketplace among Internet service providers dominated the conversation and seemingly put net neutrality into a box labeled “wishful thinking, but impossible.” It seemed the FCC was siding against net neutrality when in April of 2014 a draft Open Internet Notice of Proposed Rulemaking circulated within the FCC. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler faced a lot of heat for this proposal, which he tried to diffuse in an April 2014 blog post on the FCC site:

To be clear, this is what the Notice will propose:
  1. That all ISPs must transparently disclose to their subscribers and users all relevant information as to the policies that govern their network;
  2. That no legal content may be blocked; and
  3. That ISPs may not act in a commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity (Wheeler, 2014a).

The language here was murky and Wheeler was criticized for the “commercially unreasonable manner” verbiage, which did not take a transparent stance toward the upholding of net neutrality, but rather, opened the doors for non-transparent interpretation.

In November 2014, the White House released a statement and video outlining President Obama’s initiative and urging to the FCC to reconsider its approach to net neutrality (The White House, 2014).

The President calls for “No Blocking; No Throttling; Increased Transparency; No Paid Prioritization.” He also urges the FCC to reclassify broadband service:

So the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do. To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone — not just one or two companies (The White House, 2014).

President Obama also addressed the importance of treating mobile data and phone providers the same as traditional ISPs and claims to have received more than 4 million public comments urging action on net neutrality issues. The FCC has no obligation to act on Obama’s initiative, but because the original 2010 Open Internet Order was thrown out in court, the FCC is currently revising the net neutrality rules. There will be political pressure from both Republicans and Democrats and we’ll have to wait and see what 2015 holds for definitive FCC regulation on net neutrality.

In a side note also affecting libraries, Tom Wheeler recently posted on the FCC blog the FCC’s mandate to close the digital divide in rural communities and the mandate to bring high-speed broadband to rural schools and libraries (Wheeler, 2014b).


Bode, K. (2014, November 24). T-Mobile still doesn’t understand (or simply doesn’t care) that their “music freedom” plan tramples net neutrality. Techdirt. Retrieved from

Federal Communications Commission. (n.d.). Open Internet. Retrieved from

Federal Communications Commission. (2010, December 23). Open Internet order [FCC 10-201]. Retrieved from

Hattem, J. (2014, July 8). Franken: Net neutrality is First Amendment issue of our time. The Hill. Retrieved from

Oliver, J. (Host). Net neutrality [Television series segment]. In L. Stanton (Producer), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (Season 1, Episode 5). New York, NY: Home Box Office. Retrieved from

Smith, A. (2014, November 25). What Internet users know about technology and the Web. Pew Research Center. Retrieved from

T-Mobile. (2014, November 24). T-Mobile doubles down on music freedom with addition of 14 new services [Press release]. Retrieved from

Wheeler, T. (2014a, April 24). Setting the record straight on the FCC’s Open Internet Rules [Blog post]. FCC Official Blog. Retrieved from

Wheeler, T. (2014b, November 20). Closing the digital divide in rural America [Blog post]. FCC Official Blog. Retrieved from

The White House. (2014). Net neutrality: President Obama's plan for a free and open Internet. Retrieved from



Annie Herlocker, TLA Intellectual Freedom Committee Co-Chair, is Assistant Director at the Clarksville-Montgomery County Public Library. Email her at


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