When chairman Ajit Pai of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in late 2017 repealed the FCC’s own 2015 net neutrality rules that it had painstakingly produced after an extensive public comment period, the FCC resumed a long-standing pattern of enabling media concentration. Concentrating media enables internet service providers (ISP), which may be part of such concentrations, to favor internet traffic from partnered or co-owned platforms over traffic from other media conglomerates. For example, if a media conglomerate owned Netflix (which is not yet true), that conglomerate, were it to include among its properties ISPs, could favor Netflix traffic flowing through its networks over that of other streaming media services not owned by the same conglomerate, like Hulu or Amazon Video. Concentrating media under single ownership also discourages competition in the marketplace, in turn providing fewer choices for consumers.
The American Library Association (ALA) points to problems confronting libraries that increased media concentration cause:
Libraries cannot ensure ‘the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources’ (Jones, 1999), unless they counter the detrimental impact of media consolidation on the diversity of ideas and localism in their communities. When media consolidation restricts the creation and dissemination of multiple perspectives, the public no longer has a healthy, open exchange of information and ideas.
These problems affect our students and our scholarship. Net neutrality laws directly impact the resources and services that scholars and students can access. As media concentration increases, the potential for access to “the widest possible dissemination of information” diminishes for scholars and students alike, especially through local ISPs from home and work networks. While campus networks may be largely spared from media concentration, the internet is simply a collect of public and private networks passing information from computer to computer, network to network. When parts of the internet are blocked or throttled by ISPs seeking to promote their own conglomerated content, then the Internet writ wide is blocked or throttled. When competing ISPs are available, the problem can be sidestepped. But few competing ISPs serve the same regions, meaning when net neutrality is not upheld, consumers must simply accept their ISP’s decisions and the limitations they incur.
Media concentration is especially common among commercial academic publishers. Such concentrations even more directly affect scholarship. When EBSCO or Elsevier is the primary (or sole) provider of cloud-based access to scholarly resources in a library, how can we or our students know that resources beyond our library’s collection are even available? The truth is, they can’t, and neither can we, except through the other media like Twitter we scholars rely upon to learn about new, cutting edge research. And who knows if all the tweets are getting through?
The principles of net neutrality are built, at least in part, on transparency. The more the public is aware of the unseen activities of ISPs and media concentrations, the thinking goes, the less likely the public will be to tolerate those activities. But those unseen activities are increasing, not decreasing. These hidden activities are not simply about throttling or blocking internet traffic without disclosure. They broadly affect the entire Web in the hidden selection activities of search engine algorithms. Although machine learning is becoming more ubiquitously integrated in search engine algorithms, end users are unaware that their search results are becoming more “accurate” because algorithmic processes have learned user habits and patterns. As search engine providers are able to access and track more user browsing habits through media consolidation, they are able to more reliably provide search results that users want to see.
But it’s what scholars and students don’t see that we need to see. That is, we need to know that the results we’ve been served by library searches are comprehensively from among all available scholarship. We need to know that algorithmic processes have shown us results beyond those our previous search histories suggest we’d like to see. Net neutrality rules that encourage transparency and discourage media concentration help to ensure that we see more results than what artificially intelligent algorithms are programmed and learn to reveal.