In November 2014, US President Obama announced the government's decision to maintain “net neutrality” under which Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot block or slow down websites or create different levels of Internet speed. But last week, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has decided to reverse this decision based on a vote. This means that going forward, ISPs can restrict websites (behind a paywall); reduce the speed at which certain types of content are loaded; and create premium, speedy access categories where users are asked to pay more if they want to access what has been classified as premium content. While opinions on whether this is a positive move or one that would have negative consequences are divided, it is clear that this decision is a critical one that could affect several segments of users and businesses including those from the scientific and publishing community.
Explaining how an unequal division of internet bandwidth would affect libraries, Anthony Marx, CEO and President of the New York Public Library said, “in this day and age, if you don’t have internet access that works and goes fast enough, you can’t do your homework, you can’t do research, you can’t apply for jobs, you can’t find jobs.” His concern is in the context of his library and other similar institutions on which the academic community and the lay people rely heavily. According to this editorial in Nature journal, the loss of net neutrality could have several ramifications on scholarly publishing, the most critical being that a multi-speed internet system could actually make the process of scientific discovery slower. It could affect internet traffic channeled via the US, especially via locations from South and Central America. Providing the example of research in physics, the editorial explains that “in theory, terabytes of data sent from telescope arrays in Chile to physicists in Europe could be stuck in the digital slow lane as ISPs prioritize advertising-heavy social-media messages.” This could also cause problems for academic institutions and researchers in less developed countries. In the case of publishers this could mean, speculatively, that the content of larger publishers who can afford a better network and bandwidth will load faster and will be more accessible than that of smaller publishers. Earlier this year, the academic publisher PLOS also expressed support for net neutrality because of the benefits it offers to the scholarly world. Further, supporters of net neutrality argue that the idea of not creating a divide in access to online information is based on the principle of providing equal access to information for all – something that the European Commission respects in law. Defending the decision to reverse net neutrality, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai cited the example of a field like telemedicine, where physicians and healthcare providers, who rely almost exclusively on telecommunications technology, could benefit greatly from increased bandwidth or access.
Scientists globally rely heavily on the Internet to be able to perform their research easily, get their findings published, make their data available, communicate with fellow researchers across the globe, and make their work available to a wide audience. But this decision to repeal net neutrality has raised speculations about whether such a move could pose a threat for the academic community and hamper the ability to access and provide information effectively via the Internet. Exactly how things will unfold and how each stakeholder in scholarly publishing will be affected remains to be seen.
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