How the repeal of net neutrality could hurt libraries

Photo by Lance Cheung for the United States Department of Agriculture

The Federal Communications Commission’s vote to repeal net neutrality has left many in fear about what that means for the future of the internet. Opponents of the repeal worry that without regulation, internet service providers will throttle bandwidth for certain sites, charge more for faster service and censor information, among other concerns.

One group in New York City is especially fearful of the impact: its public library systems.

The heads of New York Public Library, Brooklyn Public Library and Queens Library, the city’s three public library systems with a total of 216 branches across the five boroughs, all strongly support net neutrality. On Monday, they sent a joint letter to U.S. Sen. Charles Schumer urging him to publicly oppose the repeal. And on Wednesday, they published an op-ed in The Verge in favor of keeping the regulations. But now that the vote is in and net neutrality has been repealed, New York’s public libraries, and the millions of community members they serve every year, could face some real challenges.

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Perhaps the most pressing issue is the impact the repeal could have on the cost of internet service. As public entities, New York’s public libraries largely rely on government funding, which often leaves assets tight.

“Those are resources which we now spend on books and buildings and educational programs, and amazing research collections, but the money’s got to come from somewhere,” NYPL President and CEO Tony Marx told City & State. “So either we’re going to have to choose to stay in the slow lane, which will be not just frustrating but deeply unfair to millions of New Yorkers who depend on us, or we’re going to have a serious budget problem.”

If the libraries can’t scrape together the money to pay for possible price hikes, the New Yorkers they serve will be left out in the cold. According to census data from 2015, New York City has 3,113,535 total households. More than 730,000 of them don’t have broadband, or about 23 percent. Libraries are one of the few public spaces available that would allow those without home internet a way to get online.

In the past year, NYPL hosted about 3.1 million computer sessions. Queens Library had about 3 million, and BPL saw about 1.9 million.

Slowed down speeds at libraries could impede one of the few ways members of underserved communities can access the internet. And for some, this access is a lifeline to school work, job applications or other necessities.

Queens Library President and CEO Dennis Walcott, whose desk sits on the ground floor of Central Library in Jamaica, said he recognizes a lot of regulars to the library’s cyber center. They include immigrants, residents of local homeless shelters who line up outside before the library opens and students.

“We already have people who are waiting on line and wait times and people who sign up in the afternoon, and as a result of (possibly being relegated to a “slow lane”) we’ll have even longer lines,” Walcott said in an interview.

Linda Johnson, the president and CEO of BPL, raised similar concerns of her own branches in Brooklyn. As wait times increase, fewer people will be able to get online, and those that do get on won’t be able to do as much with decreased speed. Johnson said this would deepen the digital divide rather than bridge it, which is what libraries hope to do.

“If you take it to its logical conclusion, it means you might miss out on job opportunities, you might not find that job opportunity, which would be devastating,” Johnson said.

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Beyond the potential detriment to the computer services of New York’s libraries with the repeal of net neutrality, slower internet speeds could also hinder a number of their other resources. These include free wifi, e-book lending, online references and other services provided through their websites, which would affect far more than just those who use the physical computers on site.

All three leaders say that library attendance has also increased the past several years and are at all-time highs, and people who come to use internet related services often use other resources as well. Now, they’re concerned the non-internet related aspects of the library will be utilized less frequently if attendance drops due to throttled access to the web.

Right now, nothing is certain regarding what the repeal of net neutrality means. There is no way yet to know for sure what internet service providers will do with the rolled back regulations. Comcast has hinted that it will provide fast and slow lanes, but it won’t throttle or block content. And Verizon has said if it were allowed to create fast lanes, they would. New York state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman has also already stated he intends to sue the FCC over the vote to repeal.

But anxieties surrounding the future remain. Leaders of New York’s public libraries see themselves sharing a role with the internet as the great equalizer, and the repeal of net neutrality threatens this.

“The library is the last institution of total democracy where we don’t ask for information as they walk through our door,” Walcott said. “The only thing have to have is a library card to access books and computer time.”