It is highly unlikely that open access would have emerged if the Internet did not exist. The Internet makes the low-cost worldwide distribution of e-prints and other digital documents through institutional and disciplinary repositories possible, and it significantly lowers the cost of publishing, which makes open access journals possible. Open access in a print-only or proprietary network environment would require significant subsidies. The relative cost of providing open access on the Internet is trivial.
It would be a mistake to assume that the Internet will remain as we know it. With the rise of digital media, powerful interests in the music and film/television industries have become alarmed about file sharing of their content, and they have lobbied legislatures across the globe to stop it through restrictive copyright legislation and technological measures.
Since open access doesn't deal with popular music, film, or television, why should open access advocates care? The answer is simple: restrictive measures are unlikely to make fine-grained distinctions about content. New copyright measures won't exempt scholarly material, and new Internet traffic shaping or filtering technologies won't either.
Open access materials won't be limited to simple text documents forever: digital media and data sets will become increasingly important. These files can be large and increase network load. Digital media files may include excerpts from third-party copyrighted material, which are utilized under fair use provisions. Will filtering and traffic shaping technologies exclude them or will they be the inadvertent victims of systems designed for an entirely different purpose?
Even simple text documents will be governed by restrictive copyright laws and subject to potential copyright filtering mechanisms.
For example, the Tennessee State Senate is considering a bill (SB 3974) that would require every higher education institution to "thoroughly analyze its computer network, including its local area and internal networks, to determine whether it is being used to transmit copyrighted works" and to "take affirmative steps, including the implementation of effective technology-based deterrents, to prevent the infringement of copyrighted works over the school's computer and network resources, including over local area and internal networks."
You'll note that the bill says "transmit copyrighted works" not "transmit digital music and video works." Does this mean that every digital work, including e-prints and e-books, must be scanned and cleared for copyright compliance? That is unlikely to be the real intent of the bill, but, if passed, it will be the letter of the law. Why couldn't academic publishers insist that digital articles and books be vetted as well?
Net neutrality and digital copyright legislation are issues that should be of concern to open access advocates. To ignore them is to potentially win the battle, but lose the war, blind-sided by developments that will ensnare open access materials in legal and technological traps.