Alex Knopp is president of the Norwalk Public Library Board of Directors and served as Mayor of Norwalk from 2001-2005. He currently is a Visiting Clinical Lecturer at Yale Law School.
The Internet has become an essential public communications platform for our communities. At the Norwalk Library, we invest in resources available on the Internet and seek to expand access to the Web to fulfill our role as an informational community center and a neutral space for open debate on public policies. I agree with the recent statement of the American Library Association: “The Internet is the dominant communication and expressive platform of our day and its influence is only growing. As a conduit for free speech, broadband internet access services must be free from gatekeeper control.”
But an Internet “free from gatekeeper control” is now in jeopardy. The decision of the Federal Communications Commission last year to advance the Trump war of deregulation by repealing the 2015 Net Neutrality rule was an unjustified attack on this democratic arena, undertaken without either evidence of need or public policy justification.
By repealing the Net Neutrality Rule, the FCC has opened the door to interfering with equal access to the Internet by empowering profit-seeking Internet Service Providers to engage in previously prohibited activities, such as blocking access to websites, favoring their own content over competitors, adopting paid prioritization for content, and speeding up or slowing down Internet traffic for different types of content or content providers.
As president of the Norwalk Library Board of Directors, I would like to identify how this attack on Net Neutrality may be injurious to the ability of our library and other community libraries to carry out their core mission and, alternatively, why reviving Net Neutrality principles using the legislative and executive authorities of the State of Connecticut is essential for public libraries to serve our communities at the highest level.
Please consider the consequences for all of the important library missions cited below if library budgets or vendors who produce data bases used by library patrons were required to pay higher prices for their content to escape consignment to the slowest lanes of a tiered Internet or were forced to accept slower download times or even were blocked altogether from accessing particular Websites.
First, the public has spoken – by voting with their library cards – that open Internet access is a core library service growing by leaps and bounds. Usage of Norwalk Library services as measured by the “door count” exploded from 391,671 in 2013 to 649,362 in 2017. During this same period, downloads of library material online – including eBooks, audiobooks, video and other materials – jumped from 14,475 downloads in 2013 up to 39,726 in 2017. Yet there was a contrasting decline in the circulation of print materials from 491,081 materials borrowed in 2014 down to 419,336 materials borrowed in 2017. At the same time, usage of Wi-Fi – which was first installed in 2015 – jumped from 139,706 in 2016 up to 170,014 in 2017. These statistics from Norwalk parallel a national trend that growths in library utilization and access to the Internet have become closely intertwined.
Second, there is the potential that abandoning net neutrality in favor of a commercially profitable “tiered” Internet will lead to second class status for the type of non-commercial Internet applications often favored by library patrons such as on-line education, e-government applications, distance learning, telemedicine and ancestry research. These sites were protected by the Net Neutrality rule. We don’t want our libraries forced to take a back seat in the future if commercial Internet providers place profitable downloads of high-definition movies or corporate-driven content in the driver’s seat of broadband access.
Third, libraries serve as portals of Internet access to bridge the Digital Divide, which separates the technology “haves” from the “have nots” in our community. Along with technology resources in our public schools, the library’s open Internet access makes it possible for low-income families to overcome the absence of Internet at home. Allowing a commercially tiered Internet structure that places low income families at libraries in the slow speed lane would harm efforts to bring the benefits of Internet access to everyone.
Investments to bridge the Digital Divide should receive a high priority in Norwalk. That’s why as mayor I launched the restoration of the South Norwalk Branch library, that serves lower-income neighborhoods of Norwalk, with a design that reduced physical book shelving and added computer terminals and workspaces. We wired every school in Norwalk with high-capacity fiber optic cable and fully funded the education technology plan.
At the library currently, we have funded a new program to make available portable “Internet hotspots” on the same loan basis as books to improve Internet access for kids and families who cannot afford Internet connections at their homes. All families in our society deserve the same open access to the Internet that may be enjoyed by higher-income residents who don’t have to rely on public facilities for their access.
Fourth, open Internet access at our libraries is an essential tool for residents to access the vast array of on-line resources that promote our quality of life. At the Norwalk Library, these resources form an on-line “digital safety net” that promotes economic advancement and career realization by helping people search for jobs, participate in adult literacy, benefit from Lifetime Learners, access the Internet for homework help and even to provide tools for teens seeking after school access for 3-D printers and other Maker Space appliances.
Fifth, the growing role of public libraries in support of entrepreneurial job growth has been a remarkable success story. Open Internet access is an important resource for economic development and small business job growth because it enables entrepreneurs to access innovation resources. Entrepreneurs in our era seek research and work spaces in our libraries. That’s why recent library facility modernization projects in the Fairfield County region have always included providing higher levels of fiber-optic wiring, electrical grid capacity, white screen interoperability, modular plug-ins, individual work stations and flexi-space meeting rooms. This new capacity also makes libraries attractive for on-site corporate training programs.
Sixth, libraries are essential service providers to the growing elderly population in our state. Connecticut as a whole and Fairfield County in particular are aging more quickly than the rest of the nation. Our experience in Norwalk is that our on-site Internet programs for lifetime learning, cultural enrichment and e-government services are heavily in demand by senior citizens who either do not have broadband access at home or who need the technical skills of library employees to help them access interactive applications on the Internet. Our new on-site library parking will make it more convenient for elderly residents to use our library more often.
Seventh, open Internet access enables our libraries to serve as host providers of digital content for historical and cultural resources unique to our local communities. The Norwalk Library under the leadership of Norwalk Historian Ralph Bloom has been converting rare older volumes of local newspapers stored on inaccessible microfilm and microfiche into downloadable searchable digital collections available for historical research about our past customs, economy, government and society. What a waste it would be if broadband providers began charging higher prices for accessing this digital content. The same would apply to our library’s digital art collections and other on-line reference services.
For all of these reasons, a robust open Internet access operated under the principles of Net Neutrality is necessary for Norwalk and for all of Connecticut’s public libraries. To counter the Trump Administration’s repeal of the Net Neutrality rule, 25 states have launched legislative or executive initiatives to exercise their state authority to restore net neutrality principles. Just last week Washington State enacted on a bi-partisan basis “the nation’s first state law that prevents Internet service providers from blocking and slowing down content on-line.” (NY Times, March 6, 2018, p. B1.)
I urge Connecticut to take similar action by enacting two bills pending in the General Assembly. Sen. Bob Duff has introduced Senate Bill 2, An Act Concerning Internet Service Providers and Net Neutrality Principles, to apply the state’s maximum regulatory authority available to safeguard the principles of Net Neutrality and to apply them to Internet Service Providers. A second measure, House Bill 5260, An Act Requiring State Contractors to Adopt a Net Neutrality Policy, would imbed net neutrality principles in future state contracts with Internet Service Providers. By enacting these bills into law, Connecticut can go a long way in restoring Net Neutrality and protecting the public interest in open access to the Internet.