The issue of “net neutrality” has been hotly debated for years. On December 21, the FCC issued a new order, hoping to preserve an “open network” for consumers and investors, but not everyone is convinced their new rules solve any of the problems around net neutrality.
What is Net Neutrality? Internet access is largely provided through network pipelines owned by cable and phone companies. Some of these ISPs (Internet Service Providers) would like to charge premium fees for major users of the World Wide Web (companies like Google or Microsoft). Organizations that pay these fees would be ensured speedy broadband access—what some have called an Internet “fast lane.” For instance, Comcast Corporation could offer to speed up Hulu—if Hulu wanted to pay a price.
If ISPs go this route, many fear other services that use the Web could be relegated to an Internet “slow lane” or eventually banned altogether. Advocates for net neutrality ask for a level playing field: you should not be charged extra to put your Internet application or website into the pipelines. Advocates not only believe this encourages economic growth and ingenuity, but many believe “neutrality” is a founding principle of the Internet itself.
An Old Debate
The hinge of the disagreement is not whether the Internet should remain as “open” as possible—that is desirable to many parties. Rather, the debate is over what way the government should get involved.
Tim Wu, professor at Columbia Law School, is often credited with coining the term “network neutrality.” He believes it is important to differentiate sharply between the principle of network neutrality and a network neutrality law. They are not the same. “In an ideal world,” Wu writes, “either competition or enlightened self-interest might drive carriers to design neutral networks.” But we do not live in an ideal world.
Nearly five years ago The Center for American Progress brought together two “fathers” of the Internet to debate the issue of net neutrality: Vinton Cerf (VP of Google and former chairman of ICANN) and Dave Farber (Distinguished Career Professor of Computer Science and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University). Both distinguished speakers agreed the government should protect consumers’ rights, but disagreed about what should be done.
Cerf said DSL providers, for instance, are having difficulty expanding because the cost is so great, so they are asking application service providers to pay for access to the broadband networks, in addition to the individual Internet users. “Some of us are worried that what that will do is inhibit innovation in the networks,” Cerf stated. “Suppose you have a new idea, you want to try it out, but it happens to require some broadband access […] Unless you also pay for access to the broadband facility to deliver your application, you won’t get access to it. Your application may never get off the ground.” Cerf would like to see the ISPs continue to be merely neutral facilitators between providers and consumers, and to ensure that will happen Cerf believes we need good legislation.
Farber agreed with much of Cerf’s ideas but thought getting Congress involved was a mistake. He believed if we try to weld our solutions into law we would be “prejudging” the path that technology takes, creating more problems for the evolution of the Internet. Farber stated, “To have the Congress pass hazy laws and then expect these regulatory mechanisms [like the FCC] to rapidly be responsive to new technologies and new ways of doing things is probably expecting too much.” He agrees there are dangers to ISPs having a monopoly but thinks there are effective mechanisms in place already to solve potential problems, citing, for example, antitrust laws. If ISPs use their networks to set up unfair systems that inhibit competition or encourage monopolies, there are already regulations in place, enforced by the Department of Justice, to handle these concerns.
A New Debate
Popular discussion about net neutrality tends to revolve around First Amendment issues—could ISPs hinder free expression on the Internet? Professor Farber says this only obscures the main point:
The whole discussion of net neutrality has turned into a show. Everything and the kitchen sink has been brought to bear under the net neutrality banner, including freedom of speech, etc. I think it’s obscured the fundamental question that should be addressed, and that’s the future of our communication system.
Jon Crowcroft, Professor of Communications Systems at the University of Cambridge, says the issue is somewhat unique to the United States. “In general,” Crowcroft states, “I would point out that the US has been the source of all the worry about neutrality.” In the UK, Crowcroft says, there is no need for increased regulation because there is a healthy competition among ISPs: there is increasing performance and coverage of broadband access, 3G and 4G access, with falling prices.
Last month the FCC passed three rules that weigh in on net neutrality.
- To comply with the FCC, ISPs must be transparent about how well their networks work and their pricing plans so consumers can “make informed choices.”
- ISPs also cannot completely block any lawful Internet applications or services.
- Finally, ISPs cannot “unreasonably discriminate” in transmitting Internet traffic unless it does for the sake of “reasonable network management.” Giving third parties “pay for priority” would likely fall into the “unreasonable” category.
Tim Wu explains that the rules are as good as a ban on any would-be Internet fast lane. The cable industry, for instance, would need to create a complex system in order to comply with the FCC guidelines. Wu says, “That’s particularly unhappy news for the cable industry, which has more of a fast lane to sell.”
If upheld, these rules could mean good news for individual consumers. If cable companies are bound to give all Internet applications equal share of high speed pipelines, this means consumers will not need to worry about their ISP slowing down Netflix or Hulu.
There is a fair amount of uncertainty around these new rules. First and foremost, federal courts have stopped the FCC in the past from exercising authority over net neutrality issues. Only time will tell if the same happens again in this case. FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, who voted against this policy, says, “The FCC is not only defying a court, but it is circumventing the will of a large bipartisan majority of Congress as well […] As a result, the FCC has provocatively charted a collision course with the legislative branch.”