Keeping the Internet open

Keeping the Internet open

State Librarian makes the case for net neutrality

Members of the Vermont community of academic, school and public libraries are united in our belief that an open and innovative Internet is essential to our nation's freedom of speech, educational achievement, economic vitality, and equal access to information.

An open Internet - one whose networks are operated in a neutral manner without interfering with the transmission, services, applications, or content of Internet communications - is fundamental for libraries to fulfill their mission.

That mission is to provide students, government employees, teachers and faculty, and the general public - citizens of all ages and backgrounds - equal access to information and to the wide variety of digital resources and opportunities made available via the Internet.

It has always been and remains today a core value of libraries to preserve the free flow of information. It doesn't matter whether that information comes in print or audio-visual or digital format.

Intellectual freedom - the right of citizens to have access to information, including that which may be controversial - is a hallmark of our democracy and of libraries.

In my 30 years of work in public libraries, I have seen firsthand how the Internet provides all of us with a platform for the open exchange of information and ideas, intellectual discourse, civic engagement, research, innovation, teaching, and learning.

Access to the Internet has revolutionized libraries and the services that we provide to our users. This is true for libraries of all types, but I want to focus on how the Internet is used in our public libraries - and why the Internet functions best when it is open to everyone on an equal basis, without interference or restriction by Internet providers.

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Vermont is a small state with a population of just under 631,000. We have 183 public libraries, more libraries per capita than any other state.

Only 17 percent of these libraries serve populations greater than 5,000, and only two libraries serve populations greater than 20,000. We are a state of small, rural communities and our public libraries - like libraries across the country - are often the only place in town for free Internet access.

Public libraries are the go-to places for job seekers, independent learners, researchers, and local entrepreneurs. Nearly all public libraries in this country offer free public computers with Internet access and public WiFi.

How else are local residents who have no computer or Internet access at home going to locate job openings - or file the online job applications that are now required by so many employers? How will they be able to access e-government services?

Last year, Vermont libraries reported 3.6 million visits and 4.5 million items checked out. But these statistics do not fully reflect the increasing demand for library technology - both inside a library building and remotely from home, school, and office via the Internet.

In addition to computers and Internet access, libraries offer e-books and other e-resources for free download to laptops, mobile tablets, and smart phones.

In Vermont, citizens can use their personal public library cards to log on from any computer device to the statewide Vermont Online Library, a collection of licensed subscription-based resources, including thousands of full-text articles from magazines and newspapers, car-repair videos, reliable health and medical information, interactive language learning, tools for creating resumes and business plans, and rich content on science and current affairs.

In addition, the Department of Libraries provides every Vermonter no-fee access - via a library card barcode - to more than 500 online classes in Universal Class, a program that offers self-paced learning with live remote instructors on topics that range from digital photography and knitting to astronomy, bookkeeping, and business writing.

Our libraries provide the access - leveling the playing field for citizens and entrepreneurs who need these learning and training opportunities.

Recently, I was approached by the custodian in a small library who thanked me for providing this service in his town. He had used his home computer to complete five different history classes, his personal interest and passion.

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In Vermont, 53 public libraries have high speed, high-capacity fiber broadband, thanks to a federal Broadband Technology Opportunities Program grant.

In Readsboro (population 814), a local entrepreneur who operates a home-based business has started doing his work at the public library because the fiber connection is so fast and efficient.

National studies show that citizens often choose to use public library Internet and WiFi - even if they have it at home.

Why? It may be because the connection is faster, but people also like the library environment, the connection with their local community, easy access to other library resources, and the assistance of a trained librarian when needed.

In Arlington, the public library serves a population of about 3,800 with a new high-speed fiber connection. They have used laptops and a scanner to put their local history online, including a collection of wonderful historic photographs of surrounding towns.

Arlington is also one of 14 Vermont public libraries that last year launched free community videoconferencing. Using high-quality microphones, cameras, and large-screen monitors, these libraries have hosted no-fee online long-distance interactive business seminars, long-distance job interviews for individuals, and online meetings and training, sometimes with viewers tuning in from multiple library sites.

This is all web-based, so unimpeded Internet access is critical.

Library patrons use the Internet to stream audio and video and to Skype distant family and friends. They also upload content - and that reflects the evolving role of libraries as places for content creation.

Local authors, innovators, and entrepreneurs use the public library Internet to upload and share their unique content with the rest of the world. This promotes collaboration in learning, in research, and in business development.

In addition to purchasing licensed subscription resources for their users, libraries are creating their own content for the Internet.

Public libraries are following the lead of our school and academic libraries that create massive open online courses (MOOCs) and other online instructional resources, and they post student projects and interactive learning via the Internet. We are seeing development of unique online content in even our smallest public libraries.

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Internet resources must be both affordable for libraries and freely accessible to those we serve. Without the Open Internet, there is a danger that libraries will face higher service charges for so-called “premium” online information services.

This arrangement could result in faster access to for-profit higher education or other commercial educational entities over local community colleges, or quicker results leading to Disney services to children over access to quality children's literature.

This would clearly place limitations on the amount or quality of information libraries can provide to their users.

There simply cannot be a system of tiered Internet access in this country which would set limits on bandwidth or speed because of paid prioritized transmission.

Such a scheme would only increase the gap that already exists between the haves and the have-nots. It would create friction and, in some cases, insurmountable obstacles for citizens to get the information they need.

Bowing to powerful corporate interests that would take control of the Internet pipes would put libraries and the millions of citizens they serve at risk. Imagine the consequences: libraries would be forced to just turn off access to vital information for those who need it most.

We cannot afford a society where information is available to only those who have deep pockets. I have spent my entire professional life working in libraries to ensure that information resources are freely available to all citizens on an equal basis.

All Americans need to be able to use Internet resources on an equal footing: the most disenfranchised citizens, those who would have no way to access the Internet without the library, the unemployed and underemployed, those who are in need of good health information or e-government services, new Americans struggling to adapt to their new country, those who cannot afford home Internet service or who lack the skills to use computers, and those who might want to create and share their own information.

Americans depend on ready and equal access to the Internet. The amazing and mind-boggling range of Internet content and resources offers to them to help live their daily lives, to improve their education and job skills, to find employment, and to contribute to the local economy.

An Internet that is anything but open and providing equal access for every citizen is simply not an option. An Open Internet is not a privilege for the affluent; it is a right for every one of us.

The bottom line is this: we need legally enforceable rules that will protect the Open Internet. We cannot simply trust that Internet service providers will do the right thing.

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Senators have an opportunity to do the right thing for America. They have a choice: to advance the work of our libraries and other learning institutions and to protect citizen access to the Internet, or to take that right away and to give these opportunities only to those citizens or entities that can pay.

As a representative of the state of Vermont who works with libraries statewide and with other state librarians across the country, and as an American citizen, I expect lawmakers to make the decision that is best for all of us and that strengthens our country.

That measure is to champion net neutrality and to support an open Internet. We need legally enforceable rules that will protect this resource.

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