• Law, Policy—and IT?

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


Commissioner Pai, Don’t Forget Higher Ed

Net neutrality.


April 23, 2017

Last week the New York Times reported that Commissioner Pai, President Trump’s pick to lead the F.C.C., has been talking with industry leaders about his intention to re-categorize the internet. Why isn’t he consulting higher education?

 Under the new administration, no agency has been more active than the FCC. Right out of the gate, the new chairman reversed a ruling to have taken effect which would have required telecommunications companies to deploy more stringent security and privacy rules. Then there was the handholding that Chairman Pai did with Congress to get them to pass the law that allows telecommunication companies to scrape consumer personal information. Now this past week the FCC is talking with the internet companies that previously supported the shift under the Obama administration to categorize the internet as a utility. 

 Let’s refresh our recollection. The FCC categorized the internet as an information service when it became originally open to the public. That allowed for “a thousand flowers to bloom” and kept it from the regulatory framework of a utility. The Obama administration, which supported net neutrality, rather than using rule-making to codify the principle instead re-categorized the internet as a utility. That category, by definition, imposed net neutrality rules on it.  Telecommunication companies opposed this shift. To them, it restricted their ability to experiment with pricing and, in short, enhancing profits. After all, they watched internet companies making money hand over fist. Why weren’t they getting a cut?  Internet companies, in the belief that net neutrality maintained their advantage, supported the Obama shift. Moreover, they aligned with consumers to effectuate it. 

 Commissioner Pai, a former Verizon executive, seeks to move the internet from that utility category. Before doing so, he wants assurances from the internet companies that they will tacitly support the re-categorization and not whip up the consumer base that supported the Obama Administration’s move in the first place. I would like to be a fly on the wall of these most recent conversations. My guess is that Chairman Pai is reassuring the Googles and Facebooks (and Amazon, Microsoft, and Apple) that the reversion will not be at their expense. Telecommunication and Internet companies unite! You will each now get a cut. It is the consumer that ultimately will lose. And where is higher education in this mix?

 As a consumer, I am deeply disheartened by these developments. As someone in higher education I am especially dismayed. Just because higher education, together with the government and some early industry leaders created the internet, it does not give higher education a proprietary right to make or break regulatory decisions about it. But to ignore the viewpoints and needs of higher education in this matter is a major insult to the sector that did indeed help to build it and has enduring needs in the pursuit of its missions to maintain an affordable, secure, privacy-protected and open internet.  It raises a vital question: where are our associations and institutional leaders in this conversation? They should demand a voice. 


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Tracy Mitrano

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