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Net Neutrality 101

Untangling the Wires

Ethernet cables and routers SOURCE: iStockphoto Tomorrow’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on net neutrality and free speech on the Internet brings the controversial issue back into congressional crosshairs. To help make sense of the issue, Science Progress and the Center for American Progress have put together this net neutrality 101, a beginner’s guide to understanding the debate that could alter the very future of the Internet.

Tomorrow’s House Judiciary Committee hearing on net neutrality and free speech on the Internet brings the controversial issue back into congressional crosshairs. The net neutrality debate resurfaced after the introduction of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act last month, which includes language mandating net neutrality. It sparked a great deal of discussion on what net neutrality even means and how it should be governed, if at all. To help make sense of the controversy, Science Progress and the Center for American Progress have put together this net neutrality 101, a beginner’s guide to understanding the debate that could alter the very future of the Internet.

At the most basic level, net neutrality is the principle that Internet users should be in control of what content they view and what applications they use on the Internet; all content on the Internet is equally accessible, and once a person pays for access to the Internet, they alone get to choose how they use it. This means that providers should not be allowed to block access to certain sites or applications, or charge different customers different amounts for services.

Net neutrality proponents argue that without regulation that prevents Internet providers from regulating their services, telecom companies could control Internet traffic to serve their vested interests. Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist.org, explains this position, saying, “Imagine if you tried to order a pizza and the phone company said AT&T’s preferred pizza vendor is Domino’s. Press one to connect to Domino’s now. If you would still like to order from your neighborhood pizzeria, please hold for three minutes while Domino’s guaranteed orders are placed.”

Net neutrality was brought to public attention recently when it was reported that Comcast, a large Internet service provider, was blocking file-sharing traffic to ensure quality of service to its consumers. Although Comcast suffered widespread condemnation and is currently under investigation by the Federal Communication Commission, sides began to form among the various stakeholders, each formulating its own perspective on the ramifications of regulating net neutrality.

To understand the net neutrality debate, it is helpful to be familiar with some of the stakeholders who have a variety of interests in any regulatory deliberations on net neutrality. Internet users and their advocates generally favor net neutrality, while telecom companies see it as a threat to their use of their own property. Pressure is mounting for Congress to decide how it will or will not regulate the industry.

The Government

The key government players in the net neutrality debate are the Federal Communications Commission, which is charged with regulating all non-governmental use of the radio spectrum, including the Internet; and the Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice, which enforce antitrust law.

The FTC urged policymakers in June 2007 to “proceed with caution in evaluating proposals to enact regulation in the area of broadband Internet access” because of possible unintended consequences to consumers. But then in February, 2008, FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said that he is “ready, willing and able” to prevent broadband internet service providers from interfering with access to any specific content. The FTC and DOJ could conceivably prosecute telecom companies under any net neutrality laws, if enacted.

Internet Users, Websites, and Big Media Companies

Big media and entertainment companies, which controlled information, knowledge, and culture for much of the twentieth century, are not happy that the Internet enables a wider variety of people to participate in cultural production. Stanford Law School professor Lawrence Lessig, an influential spokesperson for Internet users and creativity, argues that net neutrality policies are important for empowering users. Net neutrality policies could prevent telecom companies from restricting access to blogs, wikis, and independent podcasts, for example. CAP fellow Mark Lloyd has also suggested that net neutrality policies would benefit public education, health, and safety because it ensures that everyone has equal access to the Internet’s contents.

Telecom Companies

Companies that own the physical pipes of the Internet argue that they have the right to control the use of those pipes in such a way that is most profitable to them. David Farber, a computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University, has also argued that giving telecom companies the freedom to experiment, without the restrictions of net neutrality policies, could encourage unanticipated innovations on their part, which might benefit other stakeholders. The telecom companies also complain that government regulation may hinder return on investments, deterring them from expanding the broadband infrastructure.

Congress will have to address these competing views as the net neutrality debate begins to intensify in the coming months. The new net neutrality bill, which is backed by Internet giants such as Google and Amazon, is garnering more attention in the public sphere than previous legislation attempts, and could signal a new battle between net neutrality advocates and detractors.

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