Growth both in internet access and available content has revolutionised access to information and opportunities to express and share ideas. However, digital technologies bring with them the possibility to manage what people view. The World Library and Information Congress will dedicate a session on 15 August at 13:45 to the question of Net Neutrality, and launch IFLA’s new statement on the subject.

The internet is built to be egalitarian, allowing everyone to access information from across the web without unfair interference.

However, this is not the case when Internet service providers (ISPs) can give preference to particular websites, confining others to the slow-lane. This is what happens when the principle of net neutrality is compromised.

As institutions committed to giving their users equal access to knowledge, libraries have a major stake in upholding the principle of net neutrality. An IFLA Statement, launched today during a dedicated session of the World Library and Information Congress, sets out the issues and the steps the library community can take.

Net neutrality, despite its importance, remains an unfamiliar concept. With ever higher volumes of data flowing through cables and other means, internet service providers regularly warn that the internet as a whole will slow down. As such, it is an easy argument that certain types of traffic should receive priority.

However, not only is it far from certain that we will run out of capacity, but the implications of allowing discrimination between services are also significant. Users of websites which are unable to pay or negotiate with ISPs may see declining performance.

Library sites, which aim to act as a key portal for those looking for knowledge and culture, could be among the first victims. More broadly, library users will find their choices in accessing information shaped by site performance, rather than the quality of the content offered.

The statement also tackles the practice of zero-rating – allowing people to use particular services without this counting towards any limitations on data use. The idea of free access, especially for the least well off, is attractive at first glance. However, it would lead to a situation where the poor have access to only a small part of the internet, while richer users enjoy much freer access to information. This is, once again, incompatible with the mission of libraries.

Defending net neutrality will therefore be a key element of libraries’ work in the digital age. The statement calls on librarians both to act themselves and to demand that governments and others play their part in protecting equal access to information. IFLA is already active in global internet governance discussions, and many of its members are engaged in national policy debates.

Success is vital if we are to ensure that the internet creates the conditions for sustainable development, rather than for a growing digital divide.

Read the statement: [PDF – English]