• Law, Policy -- and IT?

    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Title

Higher Ed, Unite!

New FCC rule-making.

May 1, 2017
 
 

For background information, first, read this NYT article: F.C.C. Chairman Pushes Sweeping Changes to Net Neutrality Rules

Then, this NYT editorial: F.C.C. Invokes Internet Freedom While Trying to Kill It

(If you don’t like the NYT, my apologies, although I do not think it perfect, I do believe The Times is about as good a journal of record as it gets for the U.S.)

 Now, Higher Ed Community, what do you want to do about it?

 Here are some thoughts. 
  • This is not a “technology issue.” It is a very significant policy issue that directly affects higher education. While it is good that EDUCAUSE has signaled organizational efforts within the beltway, institutional leaders should insist American Council on Education (ACE), the leader in higher ed associations, champion it.  Think of the law suit that ACE brought on the subject of CALEA many years ago.  That one was mainly about money. This issue is directly related to missions. 
  • Faculty who work in Computer Science, Engineering, Business, Law and Society matters that deal with the internet, even if they are not higher ed policy aficionados per se, should nonetheless remember what the mission of their institutions is. Faculty, yes teaching faculty, need to be leading an academic charge helping to educate the country about the issues and in the name of consumers, sure, but also specifically higher education.
  • What are those issues?  The Trump Administration party line is deregulation.  The means would be to remove internet communications from the F.C.C. utility category to which the Obama Administration assigned it in 2014, after a contentious rule-making attempt to codify “net neutrality.” It is not clear in what category the FCC intends to place internet communications, perhaps back in the “information services” one from which it came after becoming public in 1993.  It is also not clear, nor likely, that the FCC under Chairman Pai that it will instantiate “net neutrality” rules through administrative rule-making.
  • What does that mean?  It means that the telecommunications companies such a Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, Spectrum, etc., will have almost no government regulation over the internet communications landscape.  Every for-profit corporation in the U.S. is under a fiduciary duty to maximize profits, and so the effect of the absence of regulation will be for them to do whatever they can legally do to compete.  That includes, most alarmingly given vertical integration, enhanced technical, business, and behavioral controls over content, speeds, access, and a lessening of consumer choice, privacy and security.
  • How does it affect higher education? Don’t we have our own networks? Yes, and no. The “internet” is a misnomer, or at least a metaphor. Physically, the “internet” is a series of networks stitched together, for the most part, by the major telecommunications companies (in the U.S.) listed above that use a TCP/IP protocol and root domain servers to manage the communications through a names and number system. 
  • Your institution (probably) owns its own network on campus, but (probably) has a pipe that connects to a major telecommunication provider.
  • Internet2 is an exception, but manages only a portion of higher ed’s internet traffic and that of research institutions specifically.
  • While campus information technologies maximize speeds and bandwidth, protect and preserve assets of information systems on the campus intranet, once communications leave the campus network those packets are at the behest, most likely (unless using another private network such as I2), of a major telecommunications provider. 
Cloud computing in higher ed is on a collision course with the prospect of internet deregulation. In the age of cloud computing, a lion’s share of some of higher ed’s most important institutional information telecommunication companies transmit, and will therefore control under these new rules.
 
  • Do higher education’s institutional leaders even know yet what that means? I don’t exactly, and so if they do, please let us know?  At the very least it does make me wonder whether it poses potential violations of FERPA. Or whether higher ed will be forced to pay even more for its network connections and communications, while we strive as a society to make education more affordable and accessible. Might failure to pay premium rates imposed on tech companies such a Google and Facebook result in a slow-down of teaching and learning, research and other institutional communications?
  • All of higher ed’s missions rely on internet communications. The federal government must assure higher ed (the entire education sector, really) of access, accountability, equal speeds, no commercial routing or scraping of proprietary information, and foundational privacy practices and security controls at least commensurate with our regulatory compliance obligations.
I recommend that higher education not get immediately embroiled in the legal issues of whether the internet be categorized as a utility or some other category, or get too hung up on who owns or defines terms such as net neutrality, but rather that it focus specifically on its needs and insist through the most rigorous methods at its disposal to ensure that the proposed FCC actions not come at the expense of its missions.

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