On Thursday the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on whether to repeal a set of standards better known to the public as net neutrality. Net neutrality means that internet service providers (ISPs) are regulated as public utilities providers, and as such must provide a level playing field for internet traffic. For example, because the ISP Comcast owns NBC, it might have an incentive to slow down NBC’s competitors’ websites, but under current regulations it cannot do this. The economic implications of dismantling net neutrality are being debated far and wide, however one aspect has received little attention: will it have an effect on critical thinking?
At a very basic level, foundational skills like information literacy and critical thinking are essential in a world where so much of people’s personal and professional lives occur online. Every day that people log on, they’re inundated with information, some good, some bad. How one assesses and uses this ocean of data can inform a great deal about how they view the world.
On the one hand, with everyone given equal footing, it has been much easier for—to use a popular example from the past year—purveyors of fake news to gain traction alongside media giants like The New York Times or Washington Post. Multiple studies have shown that people of all ages have difficulty assessing the reliability of articles they find online, and with maliciously false items popping into search results alongside authoritative pieces, this confusion can be exacerbated.
But then, the size of a company does not ensure its credibility, and people are equally bad if not worse when it comes to identifying bias or discerning advertisements from hard news stories. The vast majority of internet service in America is provided by a handful of companies: Comcast Xfinity, AT&T Internet, Verizon Fios, and Charter Spectrum to name the biggest players. If these publicly-traded companies, all of whom have financial interests in a broad range of other industries, are able to decide what users access, that adds another layer of complexity to a process users already struggle with.
Additionally, barriers placed on certain types of content could shape people’s conception of issues without them even knowing. Imagine, for example, that an ISP favored one presidential candidate over another: would slowing down sites aligned with the challenger, while providing quick, crisp service for the ISP’s choice impact voter behavior?
It has become increasingly clear in recent years that with or without net neutrality, Americans would benefit greatly from an investment in foundational skills like critical thinking and information literacy. The best landscape for users to practice these skills is a free and fair internet, not one artificially manipulated by large corporations.