Net Neutrality: NAMLE's Definition of Access
Updated: Sep 21, 2022
"Access is how, when, where and how often people have access to the tools, technology and digital skills necessary to survive," according to the National Association for Media Literacy Education.
How net neutrality impacts a consumers access to tech, information and ideas
"We are witnessing what may be a return to the walled garden, within which private companies, not the new organizations, have ultimate control," wrote Dan Gillmor in his chapter of The New Ethics of Journalism titled "Do Private Platforms Threaten Public Journalism?"
Yes, I acknowledge that this text is dated. But, what Gillmor dissects is the concept of platform consolidation within an age of journalism when social media sites are main hosts for journalistic content. Certainly, Google, Facebook, Twitter and Apple are private operators to consider - something to analyze from these starting points. But an often overlooked aspect is the commodification and "free market" orientation of broadband service providers, such as cable and cell phone companies.
When it comes to access - a core component of media literacy - I think there are critical questions to ask about how America's infrastructure and regulation of mobile and wired-line carriers are clearly established in support of an individual's ability to receive and convey information that originates, or is hosted, online.
Pew Research Center has been "systematically tracking Americans’ internet usage" since early 2000, when, data shows about half of all adults were already online. Today, 93% of American adults use the internet, according to a 2021 report. It breaks down different demographics of internet users in the United States and their mediums of access. Results from Pew's 2018 survey show "the proportion of American adults with high-speed broadband service at home increased rapidly between 2000 and 2010."
Recently, broadband adoption is at its peak, with 77%, or roughly three-quarters, of American adults having broadband internet service at home. (This research leaves out a chunk of users who are under 18 years old.) What strikes me is the alternative means of access that, perhaps, like me you first thought of: cell phones. "There has been a steady decline of those who use smartphones as their primary means of online access at home in recent years," says the report. Today, "smart-phone only" internet users make up 15% of American adults, meaning folks who do not have home broadband service.
Hopefully, that dive into quantitative research on user habits helps you to put people's ability to access information into perspective. (I am a person who data appeals to.) I ask: What is the context of those numbers, as they relate to accessing information from within the United States? Gillmor delivers again. "No matter who provides it, American broadband service is slower and more expensive than the true broadband connections offered in many other countries," he writes. When his chapter published in 2017, the nation ranked no. 13 globally for broadband speed.
The FCC's tenth report measuring broadband, which is published annually since 2011, concludes that, of 10 ISP's, the weighted average advertised speed was 146.1 Mbps, up 8% from the previous year and over a 100% increase from two years prior. The maximum advertised download speeds ranged from 24 Mbps to 940 Mbps for data collected over the period from September to October 2019. Note: the FCC defines its minimum broadband internet speed at 25 Mbps and a "more robust standard" of 100 Mbps.
Why is it so slow?
"In the United States, the carriers [Verizon, AT&T, etc.] insist that they should be able to decide what bits of information get delivered in what order at what speed, if they get delivered at all to the customer requesting them," Gillmore writes. "This means, in effect, the right to play favorites in content."
Enter: net neutrality. Net neutrality is the principle that carriers should not give preferential treatment to certain content. Key federal rules protecting the former principle - what I consider a basic right in modernity - were overturned during the Trump administration and have not yet been reinstated under President Joe Biden's administration.
One Boston Globe journalist wrote that it is a "major concern of advocates ... who want to 'save the internet,' and ensure it is protected as a public utility with equal access for everybody." Some in Congress have slated a new proposal to "reinstate" net neutrality laws deregulated in 2019.
I recognize that many carriers claim they have a First Amendment right to make decisions about content on their networks. And I see the loophole in FCC regulations that may give content providers, such as Comcast, which bought NBC Universal in 2013, cover - what Gillmor says is a "plain conflict of interest" for content-based decision making. So, not only are there well documented inequities in broadband speed and reach in America, but I have now briefly explained how corporate consolidation poses a challenge to a media ecosystem that seems to be controlled by a few people in positions of material wealth and prestige.
With the understanding that participation in society, including the ability to receive and convey information, is a global human right, I worry about how the concentration of unchecked power in internet servicing will affect our "collective ability" to think about the problems our democracy faces. Can this piece of California legislation be a guide to reform that is currently left to the states?
One writer sums up all these nuanced complications of access into a sound space of information and ideas succinctly. "The panic over media concentration was overblown, yet failed to predict how Facebook and Google would soon rule and ruin almost everything," writes Siva Vaidhyanathan. "The technophilic libertarian crew also missed the paradox within the emerging media ecosystem: that the two most internet-centric companies ended up dominating rather than distributing power. We now suffer from both concentration and cacophony."