The biggest threat to open access is a closed Internet

Many open access advocates were disappointed (but not surprised) when the American Anthropological Association decided to renew its contract to publish with Wiley, which means that the AAA will continue to keep our publications behind their paywall. But in Trump’s America, anthropologists interested in open access are faced with another, bigger challenge: Just keeping the Internet itself open and free.

Under our existing rules and regulations, the Internet is free and open — the cable companies and mobile phone providers who give you Internet service  have to pass every packet of information to you equally, regardless of what is in it (yes, the Internet is sent to you in units called ‘packets’). This is called ‘net neutrality’ because service providers have to  treat all Internet traffic the same (here’s a complex regulatory infographic for people who want more detail).

Service providers don’t like this rule because it makes it hard for them to make money. With net neutrality in place, they have to focus on providing cheaper, better service to customers like us. For instance, in order to compete with each other they have to improve cellphone coverage or provide faster Internet to our homes. This race to the top bums them out, because it would be much easier for them to just race to the bottom and charge us tons for crappy service. And service providers have figured out how to do this  — if they can destroy Net Neutrality.

The idea is fiendishly simple: Charge more for less. Right now, ComCast must send you Netflix at the same speed that it sends you JSTOR because it treats all Internet packets equally. But check out all the ways service providers could make money if they didn’t have to do that:

  • They could say “we’re slowing down everything from Netflix. If you want to be able to watch it, you have to buy back the speed we used to give you — and it’s going to cost more.”
  • They could say “we’ve partnered with Breitbart. All their websites are free for you to use. To visit non-partners like NPR, we will charge you ten cents a web page.”
  • They could say “Facebook has agreed to share your personal data with us for marketing purposes, so it is free to use. If you would like to send emails to each other or use a secure messaging system, that will cost you extra.”
  • They could say “why should we let you use Skype when we could make you pay for long-distance calls? Skype is now as expensive as our long-distance calls.”
  • They could say “We aren’t letting you tether your laptop to your phone for free anymore. You need to pay for connecting your laptop to your phone.
  • They could say “We’re partnering with Samsung to make you use their payment application. You can’t use Western Union to send money to your relatives over our network any more.”
  • Although I imagine it would be totally illegal, they could say “We’re opposed to Black Lives Matter. We’re not letting people on our network visit pro-BLM web sites anymore.”

It’s kind of like the Lorax: They’re trying to bottle air. To make a public good (or in this case, a public utility) into a profit center. Now, whether any of these would be legal would be a topic for future litigation. But two things are for certain: First, service providers have already tried to do things like this. Second, the Trump administration want to make it legal for them to try strategies like this in the future.

The place where this will all play out is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Trump-Appointed chairman of the FCC Ajit Patel has announced that he’d like to change Net Neutrality from being the law to being optional. Because large corporations have such a good history of voluntary compliance with principles that protect consumers, right? His goal: To get this done by the end of the year.

The fundamental premise of open access is that information should be free to all. Open access is fundamentally threatened if Internet access is priced out of the range of most people, or censored. In this age of fake news and made up facts, open access to information is more important than ever. And yet changes to net neutrality could pull the rug right out from underneath our feet. Open access requires net neutrality. Period.

The good news is that we have powerful allies in the fight to save net neutrality. Companies like Google and Apple don’t want to be held hostage by cable companies any more than we do. Moreover, the grassroots movement to save Net Neutrality was incredibly vital and had great successes during the Obama administration. We’ve won in the past and we can win again. But to do so we need to connect the movement for open access to the grassroots campaign to save net neutrality.

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at rex@savageminds.org

Leave a Reply