If money can be decentralized and, to some extent, anonymized, can’t the same model be applied to other things?
Net neutrality may be dominating the news headlines this month thanks to recently proposed policy changes at the federal level, but to understand this important issue beyond the sound bites, it’s important to get a sense of what net neutrality actually is and what’s at stake. The larger movement is bigger than the question of whether or not your favorite streaming TV shows will slow down — it actually impacts how we communicate, learn, earn money and share and store our most personal information.
Net neutrality may be currently positioned as a polarizing political issue but, in reality, the efforts to preserve an accessible, open and secure internet are bipartisan and totally essential to the work of growing a rising class of STEM-educated Americans.
Net Neutrality 101
Put simply, those who favor net neutrality are arguing for a system in which internet service providers (ISPs) are not allowed to give preferential treatment to some content and/or users over others. The most common metaphor in use is that of the “fast lane” vs. slow lane”; for example, net neutrality supporters argue that ISPs will be able to control access to content and prioritize some content for some users into a fast lane.
This policy is getting attention because it is a clear shift from a February 2015 move by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) that issued regulatory policies in an attempt to ensure net neutrality. The most significant portion of this policy was that it classified ISPs as utility companies, which then required them to be subject to regulation to protect consumers. Supporters of this policy argue that it prevents ISPs from providing inequitable access to content and security.
In November 2017, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced his intent to repeal the 2015 policy ensuring net neutrality. In a statement on the official FCC website, Pai argues that the 2015 “decision appears to have put at risk online investment and innovation, threatening the very open Internet it purported to preserve. Requiring ISPs to divert resources to comply with unnecessary and broad new regulatory requirements threatens to take away from their ability to make investments that benefit consumers.”
The current battle over net neutrality attempts to position regulation as a barrier to innovation, but this assessment fails to take into account the tremendous innovation already happening within our STEM fields across the worldwide global networks that connect us. The future of innovation is here, but we need to preserve equal access to information for all, instead of just the corporate few.
Why K-12 Needs Net Neutrality
Educators and administrators have had their eyes on the net neutrality standoff for a long time. Today’s classrooms have begun to incorporate more and more technology, which means that even the smallest disruption in service or accessibility can throw off multimedia lesson plans designed to get students truly engaged with hands-on digital problem-solving.
Back in May of this year, a post in the Ed Tech Round Up made clear the dangers of doing away with an accessible internet, and quoted a statement from the American Library Association, which put it thusly: “Net neutrality is essential for library and educational institutions to carry out our missions … The internet has become the primary platform for learning, collaboration, and interaction among students (and educators).”
Not only could slower speeds and inequitable access disrupt the flow of instruction, but these concerns will also weigh heavily on administrators who have to constantly weigh the cost/benefit of incorporating technology into the classroom. As a recent piece in EdWeek Market Brief explained, “School and library officials worry that if those protections are curtailed, deep-pocketed companies could pay to have their content delivered more quickly, while the flow of other online resources for educational purposes would be slowed or otherwise diminished.” In other words, without net neutrality, schools could easily have their hands forced toward a smaller range of pedagogical products with more financial backing, as opposed to keeping their classrooms open to a range of tools that offer meaningful educational benefits.
The Future Of The Internet Is A Decentralized One
The upside of this debate is that it’s serving as a rallying cry for a broad range of STEMers, including students, parents, educators, scientists, engineers and innovators who see this as a chance to work together toward building alternatives to the current way we approach internet access. With our collective power, we can create a decentralization strategy to ensure that future generations have access to the same educational and technological opportunities that we have today — or even better options that we haven’t yet devised.
So, how do we create a path forward? A 2013 piece in The New Yorker compared the success of the Bitcoin revolution to the possible implications for internet decentralization. The piece describes Bitcoin’s use of blockchains to do away with the need for a single central control point and asks the very timely question, “If money can be decentralized and, to some extent, anonymized, can’t the same model be applied to other things, like e-mail?”
Decentralization has been in the news and in our culture, for some time. As Mashable reports, a character on the HBO show Silicon Valley recently proposed just such an idea, a kind of “new internet” that values privacy and security over big business control of information flow. If nothing else, the promise of a sort of new internet can inspire us to think more broadly today and to remember that the work of STEM education should be preparing our young people for precisely such work.
As educators, our goal is to expose young people to means and methods of problem-solving through experimentation and innovation. Today, we must take up that task with an even greater sense of urgency, because the problems that lie ahead of us — those issues of access, information security and the role we want to allow corporations to play in our daily lives — those problems can only be solved with the kind of innovative thought that STEM fosters in classrooms all across our country and our internet.
This article was originally featured in Forbes Community Voice™ on December 7th, 2017.