Net and Print Neutrality

Jon Robinson
December 15, 2017
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The following editorial appeared in PrintAction's December 2017 issue, now availble online.

The ongoing debate over net neutrality was once again ignited in late November as Ajit Pai, Chairman of the United States’ Federal Communications Commission, ramped up a campaign to eliminate Obama-era policies promoting fairness in the access to the Internet – as outlined in a Telecommunications Act.

Pai, a 44-year-old Republican attorney, is spearheading the Trump administration’s regulatory rollback of net neutrality protections. As Olivia Solon of The Guardian explains, “Net neutrality, which some have described as the first amendment of the Internet, is the idea that Internet Service Providers [ISPs] treat everyone’s data equally – whether that’s an email from your mother, an episode of House of Cards on Netflix or a bank transfer. It means that cable ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T or Verizon don’t get to choose which data is sent more quickly and which sites get blocked or throttled based on which content providers pay a premium.”

Net neutrality is every bit as critical to the direction of an economy as free-trade agreements and monetary policies, arguably more so if you consider the World Wide Web to be its own border-less macroeconomic system impacting the growth of nations. There are all sorts of positive and negative externalities in eliminating the open Internet, but one of the most obvious is a danger many pundits have described as resulting in a deeper divide among peoples of the Information Age. Access to information can create an educational separation between the Haves and Have-nots.

In a November Wired.com article called Net Neutrality Is Not the Problem, Harvard professor Susan Crawford writes, “The real problem is a complete absence of leadership and policy aimed at making sure that low-priced, ubiquitous, world-class fibre optic services reach every home and business.” She argues the FCC can deal with the public outrage over losing net neutrality, calling it a shell game, because it is too hard to pin down its meaning down. “On the Hill, the public will be out-lobbied at every turn by the essentially unlimited resources of [telecom giants].” The Guardian reports AT&T, Comcast and Verizon collectively spent $11 million lobbying the U.S. government in the first quarter of 2017.

Considering instead Crawford’s concern over the real problem of Internet access, the availability of access to printed knowledge and educational literacy over the past several centuries had a major impact on the development of various regions of the world. This analogue growth of knowledge among the masses happened at a much slower pace, of course, than what is already possible with today’s breakneck digital information speeds.

It is why Johannes Gutenberg’s automation of the printing press was so impactful from the 1450s onward, allowing mass reproduction of printed material to spread knowledge. Of course, access to that printed knowledge has never been never truly ubiquitous either. This impact of print on society was best described by the late American historian Elizabeth Eisenstein who focused on the transformation of media between the era of manuscript culture and that of print culture.

Describing Eisenstein’s seminal work, James Gleick wrote, “The Printing Press as an Agent of Change, a two-volume, 750-page exploration of the effects of movable type printing on the literate elite of post-Gutenberg Western Europe… focuses on the printing press’ functions of dissemination, standardization, and preservation and the way these functions aided the progress of the Protestant Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Scientific Revolution. Eisenstein’s work brought historical method, rigour and clarity to earlier ideas of Marshall McLuhan and others, about the general social effects of such media transitions.”

Even today there are countries around the world with alarming rates of illiteracy and lack of access to books. Statistics relayed earlier this year from Kodak’s Print for Good program, for example, suggest that in middle-class communities there is an estimated 15 books per child. In underdeveloped areas, however, there is only one book per 300 children. Print for Good is a global initiative to support communities throughout America, Europe, Asia and the Middle East with book drives, donations, and the printing of materials in an effort to increase worldwide literacy.

“An investment in literacy is an investment in the future; and every dollar that’s spent on adult literacy provides society with a return of $7.14, enabling individuals to help themselves, their families and their communities,” said Brad Kruchten, President of Kodak Print Systems. “We feel that print is and will continue to be a critical piece of that solution.”

There is no way to understand how the loss of net neutrality can affect the prospects of print and business, but we have learned access to information might be more of a human right than a privilege.

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