We often say that Interfolio is a “faculty first” company, and that we believe faculty are the group most central to the success of higher education. That means that if an institution’s faculty aren’t supported, the institution will not prosper. Faculty members benefit from being able to access the information that they need, with as little barriers as possible.

Consistent with the observation of faculty’s centrality to the success of higher education is a vision of unfettered access to the Internet as a practical necessity for scholars to teach, research, and perform service for their community with intellectual integrity and rigor. Current legislation protects this Internet accessibility for faculty, students, and everyone under a concept called “net neutrality.”

As our readers may be aware, the federal net neutrality policy is under threat of dissolution. By virtually all accounts, to eliminate net neutrality would carry massive implications for individuals’ and organizations’ access to the Internet—including, many critics charge, the high risk of an anti-consumer and anti-equity environment.

What does “net neutrality” mean?

Net neutrality simply means that Internet service providers (ISPs) are legally prohibited from speeding up, slowing down, or blocking any online content, applications, or websites that you want to access. The policy affirms that every individual should have the ability to choose the websites they want to access, without that content being degraded or blocked by an Internet service provider (due to commercial interest, political interest, or otherwise). 

Without net neutrality, an Internet service provider may then be able to add premiums, as well as set restrictions, for the consumer to be able to access a variety of websites, such as cloud storage sites, video or music streaming sites, or even online software services like Interfolio. Even today, in many communities, there may be only one or two ISPs—and in the future, in the absence of net neutrality protections, it may be very difficult or impossible to avoid these kinds of pricing structures.

Implications of net neutrality repeal

If net neutrality is eliminated, it’s not just individual consumers who may be affected—academic institutions of all types may suffer directly. In the last decade, institutions’ reliance on and investment in digital technologies and Internet access has grown immensely. Debates about the appropriate place of private enterprise in the academic information landscape (where credible knowledge is produced and shared) clearly intersect with the net neutrality question.

Faculty members’ ability to fulfill the mission of higher education is vastly influenced by their—and their students’—access to information. Many students are dependent on easy access to online educational resources via digital schools, and without it would not be able to complete their work. Following any pricing structure changes by Internet service providers, institutions that have yet to implement digital technologies would face an even greater financial hurdle before being able to offer their students digital learning opportunities comparable to those in wealthier, larger institutions.

The coming decision

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is set to make the official decision repealing net neutrality on December 14, 2017.  It is not a popular vote—it is a policy decision to be made by a committee—but due to the concerns above, many individuals and organizations are applying various tactics to influence the decision. How higher education might navigate a world after the repeal of net neutrality remains to be seen.