Opinion: Our libraries need ‘net neutrality’ restored

Former Norwalk Mayor Alex Knopp.

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.


Sue Haynie March 18, 2018 at 6:36 am

Mr. Knopp, please spend less time politicking and more time addressing the white elephant in the room at the Belden Hill library.

$650,000 was spent for a 5-year lease on a parking because, for 25+ years, it had none. During all this time, the branch lost hundreds+ of library patrons from the north side of town, Cranbury and Silvermine, who call the Belden Hill branch home. The branch is equidistant from homes in those areas to one of the state-of-the art libraries in Westport, Wilton and New Canaan.

You’re not getting these patrons back with parking.

There is no desire to increase taxes to rectify this situation.

The Belden Hill branch needs to reinvent itself and it needs to do it with outside funding sources.

Jason March 18, 2018 at 8:54 am

Net Neutrality is a way to sneak in government control where it is not needed under the guise of keeping the internet open and “fair”.

The internet was open and fair before Net Neutrality was created in 2015.

Government is not needed here and the argument for net neutrality is dishonest.

The Norwalk Library certainly has more pressing issues than this one.

Bryan Meek March 18, 2018 at 9:04 am

Whatever your position on this government regulation, the proponents can’t answer the simple question of how the internet could possibly have ever evolved without it. Like our utilities, net neutrality will make the internet more expensive and unaccountable to the people who pay for it. No thanks.

Lisa Brinton Thomson March 18, 2018 at 10:49 am

Agree with the above posters.

Mayor Knopp, Please do not co-op the Washington dysfunction as cover for neglecting the more pressing issues impacting Norwalk residents. #fixourdowntown

Diane Lauricella March 18, 2018 at 12:54 pm

Thankyou Alex for this needed discussion. I hope CT legislature gets this done. It is my understanding there is a national lawsuit against the Federal edict.

Government at times is needed in order to allow fair access to information and Net Neutrality was begun because internet companies were getting ready to reengineer a wealth-based system.

While I agree and expect that private donors should be part of the Belden Library “reboot” budget, government action was necessary to preserve the adjacent land for library expansion far beyond just parking…remember, many administrations, especially the Esposito years, did little to fix at a time when the land was less expensive and un-fettered by a zoning permit…including using the tool of eminent domain.

Ed March 18, 2018 at 10:17 pm

Can a proponent of “Net Neutrality” legislation cite a specific instance where someone was harmed by a lack of “Net Neutrality” legislation? Internet access seemed fine pre-2015.

Sue Haynie March 19, 2018 at 6:23 am

@Diane Lauricella. I agree that administrations, Democrats and Republicans, going back beyond Esposito failed to address the problems at Belden Hill Library.

However, Spending $650,000 for a 5 year lease on parking was too much, too late—and not enough to bring back Northside Norwalk residents from Cranbury and Silvermine. It was a feel-good waste of taxpayers dollars that distracted from the real problems…a library that needs to reinvent itself and.the mess that’s called Wall Street.

Chris K March 19, 2018 at 1:01 pm

@Ed Many providers both in the United States and abroad have violated the principles of Net Neutrality — and they plan to continue doing so in the future. Here’s what happens when cable and phone companies are left to their own devices:

MADISON RIVER: In 2005, North Carolina ISP Madison River Communications blocked the voice-over-internet protocol (VOIP) service Vonage. Vonage filed a complaint with the FCC after receiving a slew of customer complaints. The FCC stepped in to sanction Madison River and prevent further blocking, but it lacks the authority to stop this kind of abuse today.

COMCAST: In 2005, the nation’s largest ISP, Comcast, began secretly blocking peer-to-peer technologies that its customers were using over its network. Users of services like BitTorrent and Gnutella were unable to connect to these services. 2007 investigations from the Associated Press, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and others confirmed that Comcast was indeed blocking or slowing file-sharing applications without disclosing this fact to its customers.

TELUS: In 2005, Canada’s second-largest telecommunications company, Telus, began blocking access to a server that hosted a website supporting a labor strike against the company. Researchers at Harvard and the University of Toronto found that this action resulted in Telus blocking an additional 766 unrelated sites.

AT&T: From 2007–2009, AT&T forced Apple to block Skype and other competing VOIP phone services on the iPhone. The wireless provider wanted to prevent iPhone users from using any application that would allow them to make calls on such “over-the-top” voice services. The Google Voice app received similar treatment from carriers like AT&T when it came on the scene in 2009.

WINDSTREAM: In 2010, Windstream Communications, a DSL provider with more than 1 million customers at the time, copped to hijacking user-search queries made using the Google toolbar within Firefox. Users who believed they had set the browser to the search engine of their choice were redirected to Windstream’s own search portal and results.

MetroPCS: In 2011, MetroPCS, at the time one of the top-five U.S. wireless carriers, announced plans to block streaming video over its 4G network from all sources except YouTube. MetroPCS then threw its weight behind Verizon’s court challenge against the FCC’s 2010 open internet ruling, hoping that rejection of the agency’s authority would allow the company to continue its anti-consumer practices.

PAXFIRE: In 2011, the Electronic Frontier Foundation found that several small ISPs were redirecting search queries via the vendor Paxfire. The ISPs identified in the initial Electronic Frontier Foundation report included Cavalier, Cogent, Frontier, Fuse, DirecPC, RCN and Wide Open West. Paxfire would intercept a person’s search request at Bing and Yahoo and redirect it to another page. By skipping over the search service’s results, the participating ISPs would collect referral fees for delivering users to select websites.

AT&T, SPRINT and VERIZON: From 2011–2013, AT&T, Sprint and Verizon blocked Google Wallet, a mobile-payment system that competed with a similar service called Isis, which all three companies had a stake in developing.

VERIZON: In 2012, the FCC caught Verizon Wireless blocking people from using tethering applications on their phones. Verizon had asked Google to remove 11 free tethering applications from the Android marketplace. These applications allowed users to circumvent Verizon’s $20 tethering fee and turn their smartphones into Wi-Fi hot spots. By blocking those applications, Verizon violated a Net Neutrality pledge it made to the FCC as a condition of the 2008 airwaves auction.

AT&T: In 2012, AT&T announced that it would disable the FaceTime video-calling app on its customers’ iPhones unless they subscribed to a more expensive text-and-voice plan. AT&T had one goal in mind: separating customers from more of their money by blocking alternatives to AT&T’s own products.

NETWORK-WIDE: Throughout 2013 and early 2014, people across the country experienced slower speeds when trying to connect to certain kinds of websites and applications. Many complained about underperforming streaming video from sites like Netflix. Others had trouble connecting to video-conference sites and making voice calls over the internet.

The common denominator for all of these problems, unbeknownst to users at the time, was their ISPs’ failure to provide enough capacity for this traffic to make it on to their networks in the first place. In other words, the problem was not congestion on the broadband lines coming into homes and businesses, but at the “interconnection” point where the traffic users’ request from other parts of the internet first comes into the ISPs’ networks.

An Open Technology Institute investigation that drew on the Measurement Lab’s data analysis found these slowdowns were the result of “intentional policies by some of the nation’s largest communications companies, which led to significant, months-long degradation of a consumer product for millions of people.” Major broadband providers, including AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon, deliberately limited the capacity at these interconnection points, effectively throttling the delivery of content to thousands of U.S. businesses and residential customers across the country.

VERIZON: During oral arguments in Verizon v. FCC in 2013, judges asked whether the phone giant would favor some preferred services, content or sites over others if the court overruled the agency’s existing open internet rules. Verizon counsel Helgi Walker had this to say: “I’m authorized to state from my client today that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements.” Walker’s admission might have gone unnoticed had she not repeated it on at least five separate occasions during arguments.

The court struck down the FCC’s rules in January 2014 — and in May, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler opened a public proceeding to consider a new order. In response millions of people urged the FCC to reclassify broadband providers as common carriers and in February 2015, the agency did just that.

It is not just these violations of the principles of a free and open internet that we need to think about, but also the opportunity cost. When internet service providers take it upon themselves to decide winners and losers based on how they decide which bits are more or less important, it will stifle innovation. How does the next Netflix get created when an ISP like Comcast demands you pay extra to get those bits delivered? This wouldn’t be an issue if everyone had three or four or five great choices for robust internet, but they don’t. Many people have one option, or maybe one cable internet provider and one legacy DSL provider (which can’t provide the speeds necessary to keep up with modern digital consumption). Sadly, many ISP’s essentially have regional monopolies so there aren’t natural market forces to curb this kind of behavior.

Chris K March 19, 2018 at 1:09 pm

@Jason, there were many instances of internet providers abusing their power before 2015. The reason there wasn’t more is because companies backed down in the face of the FCC and feared the prospect of even greater regulation. Things were humming along mostly okay until Verizon challenged an FCC ruling in court and the court decided that the FCC lacked the authority at that time. The judge pointed out that the agency would have the authority if it classified internet providers as Title II carriers, the way they do for voice communications. The FCC didn’t really want to go down that route, but their hand was forced. Even still, they showed considerable restraint; there are a raft of regulations that the FCC opted not to exercise, the biggest one being literal price controls. They made the best of a bad situation and erred on the side of protecting consumers and competition.

Bryan Meek March 20, 2018 at 9:00 am

@Chris K. You asked…”how does Netflix get created”…..the answer is it does from demand not more stupid laws and rules to govern it. It doesn’t do it with by hiring armies of lawyers and lobbyists to skirt around yet more stupid laws and regulations. It does it by pouring that capital into R&D and a creating product that people want and people want to pay for. Meanwhile the same folks who installed Net Neutrality have ignored anti trust laws already on the books that would have prevented some of the local monopolies you say we need to be protected from. Sorry, you can’t have it both ways.

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