The Debate Over Net Neutrality and the Free Exchange of Information

Recently Comcast Corp. won a case against the FCC barring the FCC from enforcing “net neutrality” regulations. This has set off debate in the political realm of free market vs. regulation as well as on the internet between ISPs (internet service providers) and content providers such as Google, Microsoft and Amazon. The FCC defines net neutrality as:

  • Equal access to the lawful Internet content of your choice.
  • The ability to run applications and use services of your choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • The ability to connect your choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • Competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

The FCC asserts that these practices keep the internet open allowing it to continue to expand and make leaps in innovation.  Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the internet should be treated the same and allowed to go through any network unimpeded. Without net neutrality rules in place ISPs could become the gate keepers of the internet, controlling what content users have access to, the speed of certain kinds of data across their networks or charging customers more to have faster access. (This would only apply while the data is on their network. Data may drop to non-priority on other networks.)

Large ISPs such as Comcast, AT&T and Verizon argue services that use large amounts of bandwidth slow down their networks. Their solution is to shape traffic to prioritize certain kinds of data sent along their networks. For example, a large ISP could decide all of the users streaming video on YouTube at any given time are slowing down their services. As a result, they could de-prioritize the streaming data on YouTube to insure the rest of their network runs at normal speed. They also want to charge companies to use their networks; they argue these funds could be used to build better networks keeping them advanced and fast.

While traffic shaping is not a bad thing, it could be used for anti-competitive functions. ISPs could charge competitors and content providers who use large amounts of bandwidth like Facebook, YouTube, and Skype, to send data through their networks. If they don’t pay for access, their content could be slowed while data from providers who pay the fees is given priority.

Small businesses and websites could be hurt by these practices. A fair amount of innovation on the internet is done by these smaller companies who may grow into or even be bought by large companies.  If they can’t afford to pay the extra fees they may find themselves unable to reach consumers. Large companies would also have a harder time finding and buying them which could cause a sharp decline in the amount of innovation on the internet.

The father of the internet, Vint Cerf, who invented many of the protocol tools used to transfer data, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the world-wide-web, have both expressed fear that ISPs will control content and access. They feel requiring stronger web access rules would promote competition and innovation on the internet and  it would prevent content and applications from being blocked by large ISPs.

“One persistent myth is that ‘network neutrality’ somehow requires that all packets be treated identically, that no prioritization or quality of service is permitted under such a framework, and that network neutrality would forbid charging users higher fees for faster speed circuits. To the contrary, we believe such features are permitted within a ‘network neutral’ framework, so long they are not applied in an anti-competitive fashion.” – Tim Berners-Lee, Director of the World Wide Web Consortium

Many large internet-based companies favor net neutrality because they fear that their business might be affected by ISPs charging them or their internet users. Other internet-based companies oppose net neutrality because they see a new opportunity for corporate growth and profit by making deals with ISPs. Some of the original architects of the internet feel without net neutrality rules in place, ISPs could undermine innovation in favor of their own profits.

Net neutrality doesn’t means that ISPs can’t manage traffic on their networks to optimize efficiency — as long as they don’t abuse that power to shape the internet or use it for anti-competitive practices. However, the internet has become almost a basic utility to some and without some rules telling ISPs how they can manage and shape traffic they could end up shaping traffic in a way that could hinder the growth of new applications and media sources on the internet. This would ultimately limit the utility and even the magic we have come to expect when we open our browsers and get online.

For more information on the debate, check out the following blogs:

The Future of the Internet: Net Neutrality

What Does Net Neutrality Mean to You?

The Absurdity of Net Neutrality

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