Network neutrality means no restrictions by Internet Service Providers and governments on content, sites, platforms, attached equipment, or modes of communication. This includes neither blocking sites nor offering tiered service models. It can be viewed from the perspective of users wanted to access particular content, such as peer-to-peer sites for video or music, or from the perspective of producers seeking to deliver their content more effectively to users.
History. Concerns with telegraph: “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception. (Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860)
In 1934, Congress created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the purpose “to make available, so far as possible, to all people of the United States… A rapid, efficient, Nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communications service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges, for the purpose of the national defense, [and] for the purpose of promoting the safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communication.”
The Internet developed out of public funded services, such as Arpanet, NSFnet, TCI/IP. Eventually centralized routing aspects were removed, allowing the free-wheeling Internet we use today. But in recent years, corporate control over key aspects of the Internet has grown, essentially privatizing a service developed at public expense to serve public needs.
Tiered service. Opponents of net neutrality see it as “a solution in search of a problem”, arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Yet, Comcast, for example, “intentionally and secretly blocked access to lawful content on the Internet,” e.g., peer-to-peer (P2P) communications, such as BitTorrent. The FCC attempted to block that, but lost that authority after a US Court of Appeals decision on April 6, 2010.
Google may soon reach an agreement with Verizon, which will severely compromise the free flow of information that has made the Internet such a powerful force for creativity, collaboration, and learning.
- Innovation: The Internet has been a striking incubator of new ideas, enterprises, products, services, and jobs. This is to a large extent based on its open practices.
- Privacy: An Internet with built-in nonneutrality would require an additional level of monitoring, i.e., surveillance, so that packets of information can be routed at the agreed-upon speed and that premiums can be charged. (Cohen, 2010).
- Free speech: The more service is based on the ability to pay, the less access will ordinary people have to the public forum. ISPs, with a legal responsibility to their shareholders alone, have no incentive to guarantee high quality access to all, and in fact, are legally bound not to do so. They could degrade or block any Web site that was critical of them or did not support their political views.
- Secrecy: In a Kafkaesque mode, there is no provision for corporations to reveal their selective control of content, including whom they target for preferential or degraded service, why they do so, or even whether or how much they have done. Nearly all major phone and cable companies have promised their shareholders that they plan to block or degrade the content and services of their competitors.
- Access to information: The other side of free speech. Access suffers when what’s available is based on how much someone paid to put it there.
Who decides. Beyond the specifics of access, privacy, free speech, innovation, etc., the big question is “Who should decide internet policy?”
Cohen, Noam (2010, August 15). Internet proposal from Google and Verizon raises fears for privacy. The New York Times.
Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860. Central Pacific Railroad Photographic History Museum.
US Court of Appeals (2010, April 6). Comcast Corp. v. Federal Communication Commission..