Many Internet consumers get their service from a company, known as a network provider. Network providers can potentially exert a high degree of control over the Internet used by the consumer. Net neutrality is a proposed principle fundamentally advocating that interactions over the Internet should be between end-users—consumers and websites, for example—and not involve “middle men”—like network providers.48
Arguments for net neutrality include:
- freedom of speech: the Internet is at its core a free and open technology
- rights over data control: network providers have no rights over data between end-users
- conflicts of interest for network providers: the temptation for network providers to restrict information from competitors will be too great
- stifling of innovation: the involvement of network providers in determining what content, like sites, reaches consumers will create a misleading picture of what consumers really want; the success of sites will be determined by deal-making, not the site itself
- preservation of Internet standards: allowing network providers the ability to restrict content will force content in general to change, disrupting existing Internet standards
- the end-to-end/dumb network principle: network providers should simply be “dumb” networks that transmit information between end-users
Arguments against net neutrality include:
- complexity of technology: the whole issue is a technical issue best left to computer engineers and technicians
- innovation: prioritization of bandwith is necessary for future innovations, as more important traffic would be given faster access
- investment: network providers invest billions in developing networks and need to recoup those outlays by charging for faster access
- existing inequality: well-funded sites already have an advantage in getting to the “doorstep” of network providers; they can’t expect the network provider to then automatically deliver these sites equally to consumer
- bandwith availability: the proliferation of sites like YouTube already take up much bandwith; in order to deal with future bandwith requirements, companies need to charge high-bandwith sites more in order to fund the building of future networks
- costs of net neutrality will be passed onto consumers: if companies cannot charge sites for fees, they’ll end up charging consumers instead
- regulation will have unforeseen consequences: regulation, especially for something as complex as the Internet, can often have unforeseen consequences
Some observers believe that the whole argument is overhyped, vague and misleading, and that neither side is “neutral” about net neutrality.49
The debate over net neutrality is happening in many parts of the world as of now. In the United States, legal and political debates are ongoing; the FCC has claimed authority in the meantime. In the European Union, the European Commission is solidly behind the idea of net neutrality.50 In the Russian Federation, network providers can limit the actions of individual consumers if such actions threaten the normal functioning of the network. Japan is basically net neutral.51 The People’s Republic of China regulates Internet traffic based on content, although this is mainly for political reasons as opposed to economic ones.
48 Whitt, Rick. “Hey FCC, keep the Internet open — and awesome! ” Google Public Policy Blog. January 14, 2010.
50 Reding, Viviane. “The Future of the Internet and Europe’s Digital Agenda.” Lunch debate on the future of the Internet and Europe’s digital strategy. Brussels, 6 October 2009.
51 “Guideline for Packet Shaping.” Japan Internet Providers Association (JAIPA), Telecommunications Carriers Association (TCA), Telecom Services Association (TELESA), Japan Cable and Telecommunications Association, (JCTA). May 2008.