Why Net Neutrality Matters to You (and Libraries)

Depending on your personal news filter bubble, you may or may not have heard the phrase “net neutrality” discussed in the news quite a bit lately. If you don’t think of yourself as a “tech-type,” you may have been tempted to ignore these stories. “What impact could they have on my day-to-day life,” you might have asked yourself? The answer is, quite a lot actually.

At the risk of sounding trite, I think it’s worth restating just how much our daily lives revolve around our access to the Internet. When the campus network is down we wonder what work we’re supposed to get done all day. When Facebook or Twitter crashes we’re left unconnected from our friends and families. Many of us (myself included) have cancelled all cable access and rely on streaming video over the internet for our news and entertainment.

Although there may be only a small portion of the web that we each call “home”–those websites and apps we visit and use on a daily basis–we all assume that by virtue of having Internet access we technically have equal access to all information we might ever want online. This has never really been true, but if the push for net neutrality fails, this will dramatically impact the way we gain access to content online.

In plain language (thank you Electronic Frontier Foundation), net neutrality is “the idea that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all data that travels over their networks equally.” Without it, cable and DSL companies would be able to provide faster connections to websites and services that pay for this improved access. Great, you may be thinking. Then maybe when I try to watch Netflix on a Saturday night it will stop buffering in the middle of an Orange is the New Black episode.

Wrong.

Privileging access to some content over others means that the ISPs (Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, etc.) have the real power over your life online. If Comcast and Amazon strike a deal for faster access to their streaming video content you might find yourself out of luck if you’re trying to access HuluPlus. More importantly, what happens to start-ups, non-profits, and educational institutions (like libraries or non-profit online education programs) that don’t have the kind of funding that private enterprises do to guarantee that their content is privileged online? Accessing their content will be slower, more difficult, and not as easy as it is now.

On May 15, the FCC voted 3 to 2 to consider two primary options for the future of net neutrality:

  1. The FCC would require ISPs to provide a basic level of internet service, then they could charge businesses to deliver their content faster.
  2. Internet access would be re-classified as a public utility, which would give the FCC greater regulatory power to ensure net neutrality.

Naturally, librarians are big net neutrality proponents, as are the folks at the ACLU, Electronic Frontier Foundation, but also, perhaps not unexpectedly, artists and musicians who rely on the Internet to get their content out to the masses and build a fan base. The internet giants aren’t staying silent either. Facebook, Netflix, and Amazon all have made an official statement in favor of net neutrality as have 150 other internet companies. It simply isn’t in their business interest to pay more to deliver their content.

The next time NPR has a story on net neutrality, turn it up. It’s worth a listen.

 

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Discovery, but not so discoverable

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OneSearch.  We like it a lot.  It’s the main search on the library website and will give you everything from journal and newspaper articles to books, images and DVDs.  It’ll retrieve anything it can find somehow related to your search terms.  It’s a great tool and time saver.

Despite all the positive things we have to say about OneSearch, we’re feeling a bit frustrated at the moment.  We always knew, and do our best to explain, the results in OneSearch would not include everything which the library owns or has access to. OneSearch provides a service.  It pulls results from the library catalog and databases in one search, on your behalf, so you do not have to search the catalog and databases individually.  In exchange for this service (and in order for this service to function properly and legally) the company which owns OneSearch, EBSCO, has signed licensing agreements with other database vendors and publishers.  The providers who do not agree to such terms do not participate in the service.  We knew about these agreements, always and from the beginning.

OneSearch is accessible from off-campus.  Students, faculty and staff members can search and must only authenticate into the system to access the full text of articles.  Members of the community can search our holdings and view citations, but not access licensed materials.  To borrow a book or read an article, a community member would have to physically come to the library.  This “guest access” is helpful to our community members who rely on our resources for their research needs, and to students from other academic institutions who also use our resources.

Something has changed in the licensing agreements. Now, some of the citations themselves are inaccessible and un-viewable to anyone off-campus unless that person authenticates using a network ID and password.  What does that mean?  Faculty, staff members, and students, have to login before being able to view all the results displayed.  It’s an extra step, but not any different from searching a database from off-campus.  Members of our community, however, can no longer search across our collection and view article citations from the databases while off-campus.  Essentially, OneSearch, which is designed to promote discovery and access, is now limiting that freedom and access and our patrons are suffering because of it.    What to do about it?  We’re not really sure yet.

A Win for Libraries

Have you heard about the recent ruling of the Google Books case?

The case began eight years ago when The Authors Guild filed a suit against Google for violating copyright law by scanning copyrighted books and making them available electronically.  Finally, last week, U.S. Circuit Judge Denny Chin dismissed the lawsuit and issued this (30 page) statement.

Why does this ruling matter?

Accessibility.

Essentially, the ruling judge decided that Google’s efforts in scanning tens of millions of books, which are still under copyright, falls under the guidelines for fair use and is therefore legal.  How is that possible?  By scanning these books, Google provided added value, which is unavailable in print form, by allowing users to search books electronically.  This feature greatly increased the accessibility of the books’ contents, which the judge decided was more valuable than any possible violation of copyright.  In addition, Google provides access to only the most relevant pieces of a text in the briefest form, with outside links to retailers and libraries where users can acquire full text access legally.

Why are librarians so excited?

To quote Ian Chant’s article from Library Journal:

In the opinion issued today, Judge Chin agreed that Google Books is not a place where readers can go to pirate books but a tool to help people find books that may be of interest to them. Chin cited libraries as a particular beneficiary, noting that “Google Books has become an essential research tool, as it helps librarians identify and find research sources, it make the process of interlibrary lending more efficient, and it facilitates finding and checking citations.”

Simply stated, Google Books has increased the accessibility of books, and enabled librarians to do a better job finding, researching and sharing those books with their patrons.

What do librarians love?

Information access.