Internet for the poor

California lawmakers weighing net neutrality bills after first selling out to ISPs, but will legislation survive court challenge?

Raheem F. Hosseini contributed to this report.

As the federal government allows the internet to become a gated community where wealth determines access, some are warning that the biggest losers could be those who rely on free information the most—students and library users.

A July 11 blog post from the Public Policy Institute of California found that the loss of net neutrality could imperil online learning programs and place low-income and rural families at an even bigger disadvantage in a society that increasingly works, plays and studies online.

“We don’t know the outcome yet,” cautioned Rivkah Sass, director of the Sacramento Public Library. “But as someone who cares about people’s ability to educate themselves and children’s access to quality information, I’m extremely worried. This could create toll roads on the information superhighway, which would be detrimental to public agencies.”

Net neutrality is the principle that internet service providers, or ISPs, should allow unfettered access to all legal online content regardless of the source. That concept took a major hit last year, when President Donald Trump’s handpicked chairman of the Federal Communications Commission abandoned an Obama-era commitment to a free and open internet, and instead gave ISPs unchecked authority to charge higher prices for faster delivery or block the content of their competitors.

Along with preventing the next Netflix from happening, turning the internet over to corporations could hurt both students and teachers.

“It is fairly difficult to predict the consequences,” said Sasha Sidorkin, dean of Sacramento State University’s College of Education, in an email to SN&R. “However, it would be fair to say that schools heavily depend on free resources, on websites produced by the nonprofit world: sites like Wikipedia, various encyclopedias, museums, government agencies, etc. If those resources slow down, it would have a negative impact on quality of instruction.”

Niu Gao, a PPIC research fellow who co-authored the blog post, says the education world isn’t alarmed enough by what’s happening. The FCC’s decision to permit telecommunication companies such as AT&T and Verizon to implement tiered pricing models could punt cash-strapped public schools back into the pre-digital age.

“Many parents, teachers [and] administrators are not aware of the repeal, and the potential implications for schools,” Gao wrote in a statement to SN&R. “With a tiered pricing system, resource-constrained schools may not have the adequate connectivity for digital learning.”

While several states have introduced their own net neutrality bills, Washington is the only state to have signed one into law. California may soon join its coastal neighbor, though it didn’t always look that way.

Last month, California Assemblyman Michael Santiago, a Los Angeles Democrat who chairs his chamber’s communications committee, gutted a net neutrality bill that would’ve gone further than prior FCC regulations implemented during the Obama administration. After a public outcry, lawmakers in the Senate introduced what’s considered to be the strongest net neutrality protections in the nation. The bills in question, Senate Bill 822 and SB 460, already passed the Senate and are expected to be considered by the Assembly next month. If approved by the chamber, the paired bills will go to Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk.

Mac Clemmens, a net neutrality expert and CEO of Digital Deployment, is confident that will happen.

“This is great news,” Clemmens said. “It means we can enjoy fast connections without interference and ensures that commerce is conducted on the site or app—and, like the free market, we are able to connect to or do business with anyone we want.”

Telecom companies are expected to sue states that approve their own net neutrality laws, although Washington state has yet to be challenged. Clemmens believes the debate over whether individual states can set their own internet safeguards will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

As with every major issue this year, Trump will have his say. The president’s selection of Verizon’s former general counsel, Ajit Pai, to head the FCC, led to net neutrality’s abandonment. Trump recently nominated conservative Judge Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court to replace retiring Justice Anthony Kennedy, a frequent swing vote.