On Information Access and Net Neutrality

Net neutrality was quite the buzz word back in 2019 when a series of states passed legislation after the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality laws from in 2017. 

States like California, Colorado and Maine sprang into action to pass their own net neutrality laws (read more about the specific legislation from The National Conference of State Legislatures), and other states tried and failed to preserve the same protections against Internet Service Providers (ISPs) that existed under the Obama administration. 

In the years since 2019, I’ve heard the term “net neutrality” be mentioned less and less, likely in part due to more pressing worldwide issues like the COVID-19 pandemic and national economic struggles. Although there’s less media fervor about net neutrality now, it still has an impact on how and how freely media consumers get their information. 

Merriam Webster defines net neutrality as “the idea, principle, or requirement that Internet service providers should or must treat all Internet data as the same regardless of its kind, source, or destination.” Essentially, under net neutrality laws, ISPs cannot control how quickly or how much certain data reaches users — they cannot change access to the information they put out. Again, the heart of the issue is access to information, which has sweeping implications for general media literacy. 

To understand how equal access to information is central to media literacy, let’s imagine that I am a body builder interested in finding a more effective strength building diet. First, we’ll consider what the digital landscape with net neutrality laws might look like. 

As I go online to research a new diet for myself, I see two choices: “Flesh Food,” a raw meat diet, and “Omni-eat,” a blended diet that uses an omnivorous approach to muscle building. The owner of my ISP, Megacast, has an economic deal with the creator of “Flesh Food,” but net neutrality laws restrict Megacast from changing how I see the different content online.

In this example with net neutrality laws, I can incorporate elements of media literacy fairly easily. When I go online, I see a relatively equal number of articles about Flesh Food and Omni-eat. All of the sites load in about .6 seconds, so I am not waiting an especially long time for any information. With net neutrality laws, access is equal.

Graphic by Anna Campbell

From there, I can analyze who created Flesh Food, and maybe I discover the language used to market the raw meat diet seems aggressive and charged. I’m still not sure whether or not the raw meat diet is safe for my body, so I read about the impacts of a balanced diet on muscle building from Omni-eat’s. 

My new knowledge about balanced diets provides context I use to evaluate the raw meat diet and decide it is highly focused on protein intake and ignores the risks of eating uncooked food. I can communicate my conclusions to my friend who also wants to find a new diet, and we can have an insightful discussion about why eating only raw meat may pose health risks. Because I had access to several different information outlets, I can make a smart and informed choice. 

Now let’s imagine the same situation but without net neutrality. This time, the owner of Megacast makes money off of a Flesh Food deal he has with its owner. If Megacast makes the Flesh Food sites load in .2 seconds, the owner of Megacast will get a slim profit from the raw meat diet. 

Although the source about eating a balanced diet still exists in this example, it takes a longer time to load. Me, a busy body builder, does not have the opportunity to wait an extra .4 seconds to read the entire article about balanced eating. Instead, I read more about Flesh Food because it loads almost instantly. Because I have better access to Flesh Food’s media, I choose to eat only raw meat for three months and suffer the consequences.

Graphic by Anna Campbell

Of course, the example I presented is extreme (I have no strong opinions on diets, and I am not a bodybuilder), and true media literacy involves more than just analyzing two sources. However, the example illustrates how access to information has sweeping impacts on the choices that digital users make. 

Without net neutrality laws, ISPs can act like a funnel. They may not eliminate sources or brands entirely, but by making one resource easier to access, they effectively censor another one. To be media literate, one needs to have access to ALL of the information, not just the type an ISP chooses to provide.

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