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This article is about the rights and wrongs of Network Neutrality, a controversial subject that affects everyone who uses the internet. Network Neutrality is the principle that all content on the internet and all access to that content should be considered equal. That is, an ISP should not restrict or filter access to the content. This issue is controversial on one hand because of the implications it can have on privacy, and on the other hand the implications on piracy or principles of free market. Should we regulate the ISPs control over internet access, and potentially damage free market, or should we allow complete freedom of information and possibly invite piracy? This article attempts to look at both sides of the story, and tell the reasoning, advantages and disadvantages to both sides.
What is Network Neutrality?
The internet is truly a new medium for communication and has dramatic effects on access to information for many people. This information network is relied upon by a countless number of individuals in order to exchange information in a super efficient manner. The inherent nature of the internet is made up of user created content that can be shared instantly to anyone else who can access this network. Network Neutrality is a principle that has developed fairly recently within the information age. CommonCause.org, a nonpartisan organization that is dedicated to restoring the core values of American democracy, defines net neutrality as “the principle that Internet users should be able to access any web content they choose and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or limitations imposed by their Internet service provider.“ (Greenfield) With the creation and subsequent rise in use and popularity of the internet, the industry is largely unregulated except for a few congressional laws, such as the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and court room precedents set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rulings. Many organizations question whether the FCC even has the authority to impose regulatory limitations so as to promote Network Neutrality. So when discussing an entity that is created by all of those who access it, who controls the means by which you are able to access the internet? “What happened in the course of American politics to give AT&T, Verizon and Comcast the idea that they could control what applications we use online?” (Hallock)
Origins of the Issue
The answer to this question is largely what the network neutrality debate is about. Originally, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was primarily concerned with the telephone services because broadband services were not substantially available at the time. This act classifies broadband internet as an information service which “are not subject to the interconnection and pro-competition clauses of the act.” (Hallock) The act also enabled and encouraged the telecom companies to create the broadband infrastructure that allows the delivery of their service by fostering an environment that was largely deregulated. So because these companies deliver an information service over telecommunications networks that they created and own, should they be able to effectively regulate the content of your internet experience by charging users different rates for greater amounts of bandwidth? Ex-Chairman of the FCC Kevin Martin has described the situation by comparing it to the familiar operations of the US Postal Service: “Would you be OK with the post office opening your mail, deciding they didn’t want to bother delivering it, and hiding that fact by sending it back to you stamped ‘address unknown – return to sender? Or if they opened letters mailed to you, decided that because the mail truck is full sometimes, letters to you could wait, and then hid both that they read your letters and delayed them?” (Hallock) Should the telecommunications companies simply act as a delivery service for information, ignoring the content of that information, or should they be able to determine themselves what content is suitable for them to deliver? Currently the FCC is opposed to letting the Internet Service Providers regulate the user’s access to lawful internet content. They have made this clear by taking action against Internet Service Provider broadband regulation and by declaring entitlements that internet service customers should enjoy. (Esbin) In a Policy Statement, the FCC stated:
• Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
• Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice.
• Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
• Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
These simple and clear declarations plainly frame the intentions of the FCC towards keeping the internet protected from any person or organization who wishes to impose restrictions upon the current paradigm of open access to information.
However, despite these steps to help secure an open network for all users, the opponents have questioned whether or not the FCC even has the authority to regulate the provision of broadband information services. Also, if the goal is an open and available network for all broadband consumers, how would allowing the FCC to impose its own regulations upon Internet Service Providers (ISP) bring about network neutrality? The ISP’s such as AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are under the impression that by allowing the free-market to decide, consumers will get the best service for the best price. “Aimed at improving serious long term structural incompatibility between private incentives and social welfare, regulatory tools intervene continuously and directly in firm decisions.” (Owen) It is possible that although the FCC wishes to regulate ISP’s to ensure network neutrality, they may in fact stifle the growth and innovation of the industries by promoting identical services and discouraging healthy competition.
The issue is quite clearly divided into two camps. The deregulators believe in bandwidth scarcity which to them justifies trying to charge users and content providers different prices based on what information is being used and accessed. After all, corporations exist to make a profit and allowing an unregulated network affects their ability to generate profits from the type of information being accessed. (Greenfield) These are generally organizations in the telecommunications industry and after all, they own the networks that the information travels through. The regulators believe that bandwidth surplus is an inevitability because we will eventually have the technology and infrastructure to support a surplus and that access to the internet should remain open. These are groups that create content like Amazon.com, Disney, Google and regular individual users who believe that the internet is created by everyone therefore everyone should have equal access to all parts of it. Do you impose regulations to help keep an open and free network or would imposing those protective regulations be the first step towards stifling competition and innovation? These two platforms and their respective arguments will be discussed more thoroughly in preceding sections of this article.
Washington Post - Recent FCC regulations
PC Magazine - What the regulations mean for you
Arguments for network neutrality
Who supports net neutrality?Proponents of network neutrality include many big name internet application companies such as Amazon, Microsoft and Google. Others that show their support are consumer advocate groups such as SaveTheInternet.com or The Open Internet Coalition, both of these organizations are composed of many everyday Americans as well as American businesses (Open Internet Coalition) Important individuals that support net neutrality are people such as Vinton Cerf who helped develop vital protocols used on the web today, Tim Berners-Lee who is recognized as having invented the World Wide Web, and Barack Obama.
Before 2005 consumers were protected from the emerging argument of network neutrality under the International Telecommunications Deregulation Act of 1982. This act’s origins are from the telephone conglomerate Ma Bell, when the company had a monopolistic hold on the market the federal court intervened and broke the corporation up into smaller companies in order to spur competitive prices. During this time the communications act established that the smaller companies had to provide nondiscriminatory interconnection and access to their networks. Under these protections companies had a clear divide between the physical wires which they had control of and the information transmitted over these networks which they had no control over. This has been a foundation to telecommunications practices since that time and has put the power into the hands of individuals to produce material that gain traffic on the internet. But all of this changed in 2005 when the FCC removed this laws effect on broadband connections. Since then the network companies have openly admitted that they intend to follow business models that discriminate data flow to support their own programs while degrading the service to competitors (Windhausen). Certain companies such as Comcast have already received federal attention when they were found to have been blocking certain peer-to-peer applications that required a large amount of bandwidth (Wyatt). This is counterintuitive to innovation on the internet and goes against the founding principles that have established the working internet that we all use today.
The internet as it is currently setup is a zone for which innovative ideas can prosper based upon their own merit. This is because all data, no matter where its source is from, receives the same amount of internet bandwidth (Van 6). The open internet was the first time entire globe could communicate with each other through a network, this idea helped motivate some of the most popular internet applications today such as Facebook, Google, and Skype. The developers of these web applications would have had little motivation to create their product if they were unsure that the network would be able to incorporate them. At one time network neutrality rules protected this market but without them innovators on the net are at the mercy of network owners. If major network companies are allowed to establish special charges for emerging websites on the internet it adds excess capital to their initial business plan. For future entrepreneurs this would be a huge turn-off and the general public may pay for it by a lack of new ideas on the web. Even if a business did manage to get its feet off the ground in this market what will happen when it starts to compete with some service that is partially owned by the network company? Investors would be less likely to promote the upcoming business because it seems an uncertain investment. The technology already exists on most hardware that is in use today which can examine individual bits of data transferred over a network as well as trace its source (Wu 54). It is not a huge leap to tell your router to prioritize the incoming packets based on the network’s standards. In order to produce the most creative and enjoyable websites our freedoms must be protected before our power to protest these injustices may be censored from the internet as well.
Broadband Market Choice
When telecommunications businesses are confronted with the topic of network neutrality they often respond that they should be able manage internet content and that if this upsets the consumer that they may simply switch to a different provider. Unfortunately this is not a possibility for 98% of American households which have up to two choices for internet, cable and DSL (SaveTheInternet.com). These two systems dominate the market and many of the other competitors have actually decreased their market share in the last few years. Since the market does not constitute a truly competitive playing field many consumers would be forced into a situation where they would have to use a restrictive internet. Once the other telecom companies notice the potential to gain unneeded profit they too will switch their networks to benefit their own business model at the expense of consumers. This will leave people trapped and subject to the rules and regulations imposed by the network companies which will essentially become the “gatekeepers” to the internet. Except for the telephone and cable companies it is hard to find someone proposing an argument that makes sense expressing why they should be able to manipulate the internet for the benefit of one company or advertiser over another (SaveTheInternet.com). The hordes of telecom lobbyists saw that they stood to profit greatly from being able to manipulate the internet like this which is why the Communications Deregulation Act was changed in the first place; it is naïve to think that they will not abuse this power that they have fought hard to obtain. This is why preventative measures must be reinforced in order to limit the already powerful duopoly that rules the telecommunications market.
Who are they?
Opponents of network neutrality are generally affiliated with cable and telecommunication companies, and would profit greatly from non-neutral internet access. Companies such as AT&T and Verizon are firmly against net neutrality; however, it is important to note that not all service providers are against it. In June 2010, DISH Network and Sprint stood with organizations such as Google and Microsoft in support of legislation regarding net neutrality (Blumenthal). It is also important to note that some internet pioneers including Bob Kahn, inventor of TCP and IP (Orlowski), and Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent, share opinions with those against net neutrality (Livingstone). Below is a video of Megyn Kelly's interview regarding net neutrality and government regulation.
One argument against network neutrality is regarding property rights. Opponents of net neutrality argue that it is within their right to decide what to do with their property. This argument doesn’t hold much legal ground because it is also within the government’s right to enact certain regulations, however, the FCC’s jurisdiction under the 1934 Communications Act regarding broadband services is also being questioned. The problem is that the 1934 act was created before broadband even existed, and the FCC’s regulatory power over broadband is not specified in under the necessary title. The 1996 Telecommunications Act creates a distinction between “information services” (companies offering broadband internet) and “telecommunication services”, but does not fully address the issues of net neutrality. Legislation to have broadband regulated under “Title II” of the Communications Act is in the works, which would give the FCC the necessary power to enforce net neutrality (Daily Variety).
The question is where do we draw the line? Should companies be allowed to restrict, or even deny, service to competing companies? Should they be able to offer faster, more reliable, services to companies that pay more or share common interests? In Germany, T-Mobile blocked its customers from using Skype, an internet VoIP service, entirely. According to T-Mobile, this was due to the high traffic “hindering performance”, but many believe it is due to Skype being a direct competitor to T-Mobile’s phone service (Allen). Without net neutrality, the internet would experience many similar situations where telecommunication companies take advantage of their control over the networks to satisfy self-interests.
Some Non-Neutrality is Good
Too much regulation could be a bad thing, and is the reason for many surprising opponents of net neutrality such as Bram Cohen. For instance, too much neutrality may make it illegal for internet service providers (ISPs) to filter email spam or stop DoS, denial of service, attacks. This is something that we take for granted, and if the wrong legislation is passed, it would be illegal to prevent these problems in an entirely neutral internet. Non-neutral internet would also help fight piracy by allowing ISPs to filter content or completely cutoff customers who violate anti-piracy terms. This would be a huge win for the music and video industries that are hurting heavily because of piracy (Bruno).
Some opponents also argue that regulation on net neutrality hinders future innovation on the internet. Companies are less willing to invest in more advanced broadband technologies if they are unable to make a profit off of their investments by charging more for the new services. These companies also feel that they should be able to charge other companies, like Google, higher fees because such companies are using a tremendous amount of bandwidth that travels over the phone companies’ infrastructure, costing billions of dollars to build. Internet service providers argue that Google is getting a “free ride” (Doctorow). As websites such as YouTube are using up more and more bandwidth, if more broadband networks aren’t being built, we may see a limit on available bandwidth. Less bandwidth means slower speeds, so the instantaneous browsing that so many people take advantage of would be at risk. Without net neutrality regulations, telecommunication companies believe that they would be able to offer even better internet services than we are used to because of the increase in revenue gained from new business models that would be allowed.
Network Neutrality at a Glance
Network Neutrality is an important topic to focus on. It’s not a proposed bill, or any kind of organization. It is simply an ideal that all networks should be treated as equal and that all content is treated as equal. In America, this issue is becoming more and more controversial because of the implications it has of violating citizens’ first amendment rights. This raises issues for consumers and also some companies like Google, Facebook, or YouTube which rely on consumer access to their services. Among the ranks of those against Network Neutrality are naturally the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers, who have the ability to control user access to these services.
Defining the Problem
The internet is a market. This market is collectively run by each ISP and wireless carrier. In order to maximize prophet, some of them have engaged in actively filtering and blocking content. For example, Comcast has been actively trying to filter out peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic on its network. (Honan 2011) Some people believe that this violates our right to freedom of expression. So, certainly proponents of Network Neutrality have a lot to worry about as ISPs continue to filter content.
An unsuspecting citizen may take the position companies like Comcast want you to take: that these actions are simply to help eliminate piracy. Piracy is an issue that is behind seemingly most arguments against network neutrality. Understanding the business, it is clear that not having network neutrality would be a profitable thing for the music industry if the ISPs were to make a deal with record labels.
In fact, “James Cicconi, senior vice president, external & legal affairs for AT&T, expressed his company’s (and the industry’s) cooperation with entertainment organizations like the MPAA and the RIAA to find better ways of policing pirated content at the network.“ (WebProNews 2008) While these measures might somewhat combat issues of piracy, it comes at what some would call a high price. By allowing ISPs to censor the internet, the end user has unwittingly entered losing battle; each restriction that they lets slide makes their ISP feel more comfortable about filtering future content.
Censorship is not the only issue, however. Recently, ISPs have been “engaging in new forms of unprecedented, invasive monitoring designed to generate new revenue sources by monitoring users on behalf of the advertising and copyrighted content industries.” (Ohm 2010) Clearly consumer privacy is also at stake. Because of these actions, some proponents of Network Neutrality believe that the US government should take legislative action on this subject. If legislation is not passed, the country may find its internet in a similar situation to China.
The Chinese government’s blocking of internet content is an important thing to mention. For example, in March of 2010 Google was required by the Chinese government to redirect visitors from its website to a government-censored one. This censorship allowed users in China to get unfiltered results from the Hong Kong site, while blocking access to any sites in Beijing that were “flagged” by the government. (InfoWorld 2011)
Net Neutrality advocates believe that this sort of content filtering may occur in our country if regulation is not put in place. Here, the FCC has jurisdiction and has traditionally been in support of Net Neutrality. Their stance on the Kingsbury Commitment of 1913 when ATT became a monopoly was that “the telephone company should not be permitted to control the development of all the devices that would eventually be capable of transmitting data over its lines” (Pasquale 2010)
In order to prevent a similar occurrence with the internet, a house bill is currently being formulated that would help prevent such an event from happening. The bill hopes to ensure Network Neutrality by stipulating that network providers would be prohibited from blocking “lawful Internet traffic” or “unjustly or unreasonably discriminating in transmitting lawful traffic over a consumer’s wireline broadband Internet access service.” (Krigman 2010)
Making a Difference
So then, Network Neutrality is not some evil socialist ideal set out to make all users of the internet equal. It’s not about disabling law enforcement from doing their jobs, like some ISPs may want you to believe. It’s about helping ensure that content owners get their material on the internet without fear of being filtered by an ISP; an act that would prevent thousands of people from accessing their content.
While net neutrality is bad for the ISPs who work with the music industry, it is great for the consumer. Freedom of unrestricted or unfiltered access from the internet is what drives great services like online gaming, youtube, or facebook. Anyone who is willing to stand up and make a difference can easily do so by writing in support of both the bill and net neutrality to your house representative through the mail.
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