A New Utility
This week President Obama issued a strong and moving statement on behalf of "net neutrality," which is the idea that all traffic should move through the Internet at the same speed. Everyone, wealthy or not, gets to drive our roads. Similarly, all online content--from a humble personal website up to the streaming empire of Netflix--should have equal right of way online. Netflix et. al should not be able to pay to speed its way down the Internet pipe. As the President puts it, there should be "no paid prioritization."
I wholeheartedly agree. Many people do, as almost 4 million comments in favor of net neutrality demonstrate. The only way to keep the Internet free and open is to let everyone contribute to it equally.
But how do we ensure this? The President has called for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to classify Internet providers as "telecommunciations companies" rather than "information services." Telecommunications companies are regulated more significantly than information services, which is how Internet providers are classified today.
Such an action would update the Communications Act of 1934. That measure regulates landline phone service, which was a central means of communication at the time. Today Internet access is just as vital to our lives as the phone was then. It's the new utility for the modern age.
Anything truly vital--electricty, gas, water--is regulated as a utility. The President's statement foretells a future of tighter regulation on the behavior of Internet providers. For that reason he will face fierce resistance from business interests and Republican lawmakers, and it is unclear what the FCC will do. Whatever the FCC does, lawsuits and subsequent appeals of the results of those lawsuits are certain.
Drawing the Parallel
As this saga unfolds, those of us with an interest in scholarly communication should draw this parallel: just as Internet access is a modern-day utility, the scholarly publication system is the utility for academia. Without the monographs and journals that publishers provide and librians obtain, the entire academic advancement system would collapse.
For this reason utility-like regulation in the publishing sector is necessary. Prices borne by academic libraries for providing scholarly content are not the main reason for this, although they remain a concern. The reason for regulation in the scholarly market is to move beyond the internecine struggles between librarians and publishers.
Publishers have a legitimate interest in benefiting from their investments, and librarians and members of the public have a legitimate interest in maximizing access to scholarly content. A regulatory process could resolve these concerns, establishing sufficient revenues for publishers while making as much content as possible immediately open access. Of course the terms of such regulation would be fiercely contested and frequently litigated, just as will happen with respect to net neutrality. This does not mean it's a bad idea.
Why is this struggle worth it? Because in the 21st century data management and new Web-enabled means of sharing research should be our focus--not endless struggles over the business models for delivering static PDFs. Let's use some deft regulation to move past this impasse, and get to the good stuff.