Teachers and students count on having relatively broad access to online academic content, but a recent federal court ruling has raised questions about whether the education community could lose some of its ability to tap into the vast library of Internet resources.

The decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia this month has been interpreted as giving commercial Internet providers significantly more power to block content or set conditions on its delivery before it reaches customers, including schools.

The ruling struck a blow against the concept of "net neutrality," the idea that all content flowing through the online realm should be treated the same way by providers, regardless of its source.

The court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that regulates interstate communication, does not have the legal authority to prevent telecommunications providers—such as Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon—from blocking the delivery of lawful online content or discriminating against certain kinds of content providers.

While predicting the consequences of the ruling requires weighing a number of hypotheticals, consumer-rights organizations worry that it will give telecommunications companies much greater ability to charge content providers more to guarantee the faster delivery of data to consumers, leaving others, such as schools, with slower delivery.

Additionally, Internet service providers could conceivably block content from sites they regard as rivals, or broker deals with deep-pocketed companies or organizations to put their content in the fast lane.

Those arrangements, some suggest, will benefit wealthier, commercial providers of online materials, while other providers without money to buy their way into the market will suffer.

In the wake of the ruling, telecommunications companies have vowed to preserve consumers' access to a content-rich, open Internet.

The decision "will not change consumers' ability to access and use the Internet as they do now," said Randal Milch, Verizon's general counsel and executive vice president for public policy, in a statement. "Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet. ... This will not change in light of the court's decision."

But consumer advocates, and some school organizations, are skeptical. They predict that if the ruling holds up—it could be appealed or superseded by other actions—Internet providers will be tempted to channel content in ways that benefit them financially.

For schools, "at the end of the day, you're likely to be collateral damage," said Harold Feld, the senior vice president for Public Knowledge, a Washington-based organization that advocates Internet openness. The interests of schools amount to "a rounding error," he said, "compared with the billions of dollars [telecommunications companies] have at stake."

Traffic Control

The court's decision was roundly criticized by supporters of unrestricted Internet access, and praised by industry groups, who cast the ruling as an important check on government regulation.

The case was brought by Verizon Inc.—a major provider of phone, cable, and Internet services—which challenged the FCC's "open Internet" policies that promote the concept of net neutrality. The FCC policy was designed to ensure that broadband providers didn't restrict or discriminate against lawful content, applications, and services delivered online, and that those providers disclose how they are managing their networks.

For years, critics of net neutrality have laid out a number of arguments against it.

They maintain that net-neutrality policies stifle innovation by keeping providers from targeting specific online content for streamlined delivery, which could ultimately benefit consumers. They also say FCC policy has prevented Internet providers from being fairly compensated for their work, including costly technology investments.

Others argue that Internet providers should have the right not to transmit content they don't agree with. That case was made by a group of organizations backing Verizon's case, which argued in a legal filing two years ago that the FCC policy wrongly denied telecommunications companies' "editorial discretion," violating their constitutional rights.

In its decision, issued Jan. 14, the federal court ruled that while the FCC has the power to set rules "governing broadband providers' treatment of Internet traffic," the commission does not have the authority to enforce its anti-blocking and anti-discrimination policies. (It said the FCC could, however, continue to require that companies disclose information about their management practices and services.)

That decision, however, may not be the final word. The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, has said the commission is weighing an appeal. Industry observers also say the five-member commission could rewrite its rules to give it clearer authority in regulating the Internet—a step some consumer advocates believe is long overdue.

In addition, Congress could pass a law to shape neutrality rules, though many question whether that is realistic, given the prevailing partisan disconnect in Washington.

K-12 Librarians React

The court's ruling alarmed some in the education community, particularly school librarians, who in many districts are charged with finding and organizing online content and helping students and teachers become more sophisticated users of it.

Barbara Stripling, the president of the 57,000-member American Library Association, said she fears the decision will lead Internet providers to give priority to monied content providers, such as commercial interests or the entertainment industry.

Other organizations, particularly noncommercial ones that seek to provide objective content, could be relegated to the slow lane, making it more difficult for teachers and students to get information they want, argued Ms. Stripling, whose organization's membership includes K-12 librarians, as well as those from other fields.

"It will have a huge effect on K-12 in terms of reducing the equity and quality of access," Ms. Stripling said. "Information will be controlled by the provider."

Another risk, raised by Mr. Feld of Public Knowledge and others, is that Internet providers will end up making decisions about users' access to content that favors providers with one agenda or another, for financial reasons, or based on what's popular.

For instance, students searching for information about the classified documents released by the former contractor for the National Security Agency, Edward Snowden, could be stymied if an Internet provider was pressured by the U.S. government to block that information, Mr. Feld suggested. Or students at a conservative, private Christian school might see their access to various sites espousing their beliefs stymied, if a vocal portion of a telecommunications company's customer base complained about that content.

Many schools set up filters to prevent students from viewing online content they deem salacious or otherwise objectionable, he said. But it's another thing for broadband companies to set policy as they "bow to the mass market," Mr. Feld said.

A number of telecommunications companies declined interview requests from Education Week. But Verizon officials and other providers have said that the concerns of consumer advocates are misguided, and that they are not looking to restrict content or play favorites.

Richard Young, a spokesman for Verizon, reaffirmed in a statement the company's intentions to maintain open access. Asked about Internet providers charging content providers for faster services, he added that "the 'two-sided' market already exists in many parts of the Internet ecosystem."

The company would like to explore options that "would enable us to offer consumers products and services that would enhance their experience," he said.

Bandwidth Crunch

Independent of the net-neutrality debate, school districts' lack of fast, reliable Internet access has emerged as a major concern, particularly as demand for bandwidth has increased with the growth of mobile and other computing devices and the overall increase in online instruction and testing. The FCC is currently considering proposals to recast the federal E-rate program, which supports technology in schools and libraries, to align more closely with schools' evolving needs. (See "Districts Get Creative to Speed Up Internet," Jan. 14, 2014.)

One of the great unknowns following the ruling is its impact on academic content that consumes relatively large amounts of bandwidth, including educational videos provided by organizations such as the Khan Academy, said Douglas Levin, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, based in Glen Burnie, Md.

If telecom companies make entertainment or related content a priority, leaving less broadband for education videos, applications , and other tools, it would be a setback for schools, Mr. Levin suggested.

News of the court ruling reached Rebecca L. Buerkett, the librarian and technology coordinator for L.P. Quinn Elementary School in Tupper Lake, N.Y., through social media and other networks she uses to connect with peers around the country.

Ms. Buerkett, whose rural school serves a significant number of impoverished students, worries that the ruling will put her neediest students at a disadvantage. Many of them lack computers and Web access at home and rely on the school's connectivity to do online work. She's learned not to assume that the children she works with can finish online projects outside of school hours, even though many students are too embarrassed to tell her that directly.

Ms. Buerkett teaches a class on computer and information skills, encourages students to conduct research and share online content and ideas, and directs them to news, science, and other sites, in addition to helping teachers plan Web-based projects.

She worries that the court decision could impede access to sites her students favor the most.

"We've already got a digital divide–an economic divide between wealthier and poorer kids," she said. For students who might otherwise be "low on the totem pole, on the Internet, they're the same as everyone else. ... Protecting good technology access for my students is very important to me."

©2014 Education Week (Bethesda, Md.)