Why Media and Journalism Scholars Support Network Neutrality

[This is a draft blog post as submitted to SaveTheInternet.]

Academic associations tend to be politically conservative.

I don’t mean they revere Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, though plenty of scholars do. Rather, each group–representing a field’s professors and graduate students–tends to evade controversy, rarely taking a public stance on an issue that might divide the membership.

Thus, it is remarkable that the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) has declared its support for network neutrality.

The issue is too important to stay on the sideline any longer.

AEJMC represents a diverse group of scholars who research and teach nearly everything related to mass media. Based on our research–and, in some cases, years of industry experience–we know the media business, and letting ISPs pick online winners and losers is bad policy.

Nearly all revolutionary internet ideas–from Amazon and Google to Skype and Twitter–came from cash-strapped outsiders. Somewhere in the world right now, another tinkerer is developing what might become the next big idea. Before it catches on, though, ISP demands for a broadband toll might strangle this idea in its crib.

Also, some of the best stuff online never turns a profit. Imagine if, in 2001, Wikipedia had to pay through the nose just to compete on a level playing field with Encarta. It may have stalled, and even today, forcing Wikipedia into the slow lane would harm and might kill the project.

AEJMC is also concerned about the slow death of the daily newspaper’s business model. We embrace the internet age, but we also hope to ensure financial viability for “print” journalism. ISP tolls would make this much harder.

MSNBC and FoxNews could afford to pay extra for the rapid delivery of rich, interactive media. Most newspapers could not, forcing them to choose between deeper debts and worse user experience. Citizen journalists and exciting nonprofit experiments would also be muted by ISPs.

In addition to concern about the media system in general, we also have a selfish motivation to support network neutrality: Our roles as scholars and teachers. Academics in all disciplines depend heavily on the internet, and most of the educationally valuable content is not backed by big corporations.

If ISPs choose winners and losers online, the online content we professors assign would not often win. Would ISPs bend over backward to ensure my students’ access to the PDF of James Boyle’s Creative Commons-licensed book? Or the Internet Archive audio of WWII-era radio broadcasts?

Boyle and Archive.org are great, but I don’t expect them to pay off Verizon just to make my students’ downloads faster. This means my students have less access to educationally valuable content, they learn less, and the educational value of the internet drops. The same will be true of my research productivity.

As students of the media system and as researchers and educators, we have deep value and respect for the neutral internet. It is a privilege to have contributed to the drafting of the AEJMC statement, and I thank AEJMC President Carol Pardun for having the courage to lead this charge.

P.S. As if ISP profiteering weren’t enough, other interested parties are muddying the issue. The copyright industries, for instance, are desperately trying to force and cajole ISPs into serving as the copyright cops.

P.P.S. In the interest of full disclosure, I am the co-author (along with Minjeong Kim of Colorado State) of a research project examining the online framing of network neutrality. This project won a competitive research grant from AEJMC, though this is in no way related to my long-established opinions on this issue.