by Matt Nojonen, Library Director
From 1988 to 1992, I was a reference/government documents librarian in St. Louis where our department fielded an average of 200 questions daily on every subject under the sun. There was no comparable service, no other place where people could receive information on demand. We were the internet of those times. Our department took great pride in using the best sources to provide thorough, accurate answers. A great collection of reference books was at our fingertips, compiled by experts in all fields and sold by reputable publishers with large editing departments that checked and double checked facts and data. Every question was handled in order and we attached the same importance to each question. We could trust the information and patrons could trust us. We were, in a word, neutral. That has been a fundamental principle in the world of real information for as long as information has existed. In the absence of that principle, information seekers are at the mercy of political and commercial forces who may not have their best interests at heart.
Now it is legal for internet service providers to play information favorites in exchange for money. Accuracy, relevancy and the quality of sources are secondary considerations if payment is made. Some scoff at such concerns. They argue the internet is just another marketplace where competition should rule. I disagree. Information is not a commodity in the sense of, say, tomatoes. Stores are not paid to put some tomatoes on top even though their quality is suspect. Stores do not accept produce blindly as long as a check from the grower clears the bank. Shoppers can see what tomatoes are bruised, not ripe or have nasty green worms squirming around inside them.
The consumer does not benefit if internet providers are paid to prefer certain information and bury the rest. And the internet is not just a produce department. It is our primary venue of political, social and economic information. Everyone, including the internet service providers, fully understand that people make huge life decisions based on what they find there. Everyone is also aware that paid propaganda has become a highly lucrative industry and an incredibly destructive influence. Innuendo and outright lies pay handsomely.
Eliminating net neutrality makes me wonder how things would have been back in the reference department if we had been paid to promote certain information and hide others; if we had been paid to force some people to the back of the line. What if we slowed down our responses to some patrons and sped them up for others? What would have happened if we had deliberately fed misinformation to the hundreds of people who called us every day in exchange for a fatter bank account? The public would have been furious and rightfully so. Just as they would have been unhappy with rotten tomatoes.