What Is Net Neutrality and Who Cares?

Today, if you log on to the Internet at work, in your home, or even on your mobile phone, you are immediately entering into a relationship with an Internet service provider (ISP). ISPs maintain the infrastructure that enables computers and mobile phones to connect to the networks that create the Internet. In the days of dial-up, there were many ISPs, including those that operated locally by leasing the right to offer Internet access over telephone lines.

Developments in faster broadband access, the popularity of the Internet with the public, and the deregulation of the Internet under the Bush Administration FCC helped to consolidate the ISPs operating today. Larger telecommunication companies, mainly AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon, lobbied extensively for this deregulation, and the subsequent revised rules reclassified the Internet as an "information service," enabling these companies to end the leasing of their DSL, cable, wireless, and fiber-optic lines to third parties.

Under the old rules, the Internet was defined as a “telecommunication system,” making telecommunications companies the “common carriers”. Common carriers are private companies that provide invaluable goods or services to the public. For instance, utility companies are generally designated common carriers because they provide heat, electricity, and other fundamental services to the public without discriminating between consumers or varying the quality of that service. Federal and state commissions regulate common carriers to ensure that these anti-discriminatory practices are adhered to. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is the lead group that works to protect the interests of the public within the telecommunications industry.

Taking away the designation of common carrier for ISPs greatly reduced competition, leaving only a few local providers in business. AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon now hold the lion’s share of the market and continue to lobby extensively for ever-greater control of Internet user and business access to their networks. These companies understand that the Internet, if defined as an information service rather than a public good, offers them a unique opportunity to capitalize off of its content, services, and applications.

The Internet was not always under the thumb of ISPs; its design was guided by the principles of openness and nondiscrimination summarized in the term network neutrality. Beginning as the brainchild of academics and funded with taxpayer dollars from the National Science Foundation, the Internet of the 1960s served as a network for U.S. military computers. It wasn’t until the 1990s that the Internet became popular among the public. An estimated quarter of the world’s population is now online.

Net neutrality describes the current culture of the Internet, in which personal interest, not the financial motivations of ISPs, fuels traffic to Web sites. AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon want to change this culture and serve as the gatekeepers of the Internet. They would like online businesses to pay for consumers to access their sites. As for consumers, ISPs want to offer tiered service plans much like today’s cable subscriptions. A basic Internet service package would reduce access and limit the amount of content one could download/upload. For instance, this structure might allow you to view Facebook, but not your best friend’s blog. Or you might have access to YouTube and Blogger, but could only upload a limited amount of content to these sites each subscription month.

ISPs and other net neutrality opponents argue that the FCC, media reform groups, and concerned citizens have created a solution in search of a problem. Despite deregulation, the Internet has continued to boom both worldwide and, even more so, in the U.S. But the ensuing consolidation of ISPs has opened up the possibility for the major players to participate in anti-competitive practices, such as blocking much of the content offered today to Internet users. Although deregulation only recently resulted in ISPs blocking sites and restricting content, the widespread reality of these practices is not far off.

In April 2010, the FCC lost a pinnacle court battle with Comcast, the nation's largest cable-based ISP. The FCC challenged Comcast’s ability to restrict its subscribers’ access to the file-sharing protocol BitTorrent, a service that allows users to transfer large files like movies, music, and applications. The FCC lost because the Internet's current legal definition as an "information service" made the FCC's ability to protect Internet user rights to all lawful services obsolete.

The FCC must now reposition itself and its relationship to the Internet. The likely result will be a reversal of the Internet as an "information service" to its former definition as a "telecommunications service," again enabling oversight by the FCC. Although this will protect Internet users from ISPs that interfere with the information they deliver over their networks, it is not the desired conclusion for AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon. The FCC will need broad public support to counteract the extensive and powerful lobbying campaign these telecommunications companies will wage.

With their eye on growth, ISPs argue that net neutrality regulation will discourage investment in their expanding networks, thus making it difficult for Internet users to gain access. These arguments are unfounded. The FCC, among others, has shown time and again that regulation does more to spur investment than to stifle it. ISPs also argue that net neutrality rules make it difficult for them to manage basic congestion. As more and more users download larger files and watch TV and streaming movies online, these companies will continue to assert their need to manage consumer access to Internet content.

But net neutrality proponents are not trying to prevent ISPs from pursuing reasonable congestion management practices, preventing viruses and spam, and cracking down on illegal file sharing and piracy. Net neutrality policies mainly seek to assert the public right to freely access all lawful websites without any interference by an ISP, and provide a venue for inquiries into potential abuses of this right by ISPs.

Today, multiple legislative efforts are underway on both sides of the debate. Senator John McCain has introduced the Internet Freedom Act, legislation that would further deregulate the telecommunications industry and effectively block the FCC from issuing any policies that protect net neutrality. An opposing bill, the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, amends the Communications Act of 1996 to clarify and codify net neutrality principles into law. It also supports the FCC’s list of “Internet Freedoms,” including the freedom of expression, the lawful use of Internet applications and devices that pose no harm to a network, and policies that protect competition among service providers.

Unfortunately, ISPs and many of their political supporters are not solely motivated by a desire for greater profits and personal gain. The principles of transparency and free speech are also at stake. Because net neutrality allows all voices on the Internet to be heard, regardless of ideology, some perceive it as a threat, especially to many partisan political campaigns. In 2007, the threat of Internet censorship became a reality when AT&T cut audio during an online broadcast of a rock concert featuring the band Pearl Jam. The “technical error” occurred just as the lead singer began publicly criticizing then President George W. Bush. AT&T stated that its contractors made the technical error; but after pressure from bloggers who cited previous instances of AT&T censorship, the company issued a broader apology.

Already there is a large coalition of people who support net neutrality and work to have it codified into law. Journalists, writers and bloggers, small and large Internet businesses, advocates, academics, and a wide majority of the public see the value of having an open Internet that encourages competition among content creators, service providers, and application developers. Supporters cite the many studies that show how open Internet policies encourage competitive marketplaces, drive innovation, and dramatically lower consumer pricing.

As the U.S. continues to fall behind other nations in terms of Internet speed, access, and price, the urgency of the current situation grows. While ISP profits exceed billions of dollars per year, there remains a large divide between those who can afford access to the Internet, with its opportunities for employment, education, and civic engagement, and those who cannot. Without net neutrality, this gap would surely widen, exacerbated by stifled innovation, fewer online businesses creating jobs, actively censored news and information sources, and skewed public discourse.

Net neutrality needs active spokespeople who are invested in supporting federal policy-making that will ensure the open Internet remains a reality. Understanding the value of net neutrality is only the first step. Communicators must then transmit this information to the public in a way that motivates understanding and action. Chapter Two will address the public’s opinion of the Internet, ISPs, and net neutrality as a principle and a policy. With this information, communicators can define their target audiences, as discussed in Chapter Three, and use the recommendations presented in Chapter Four to create persuasive open Internet campaigns.

Fiction v. Fact*

Fiction: Net neutrality is a solution in search of a problem.
Fact: ISPs have repeatedly stated their intention to violate the principles of the open Internet to reap profits from discrimination.
New net neutrality policies would be the first time the government has regulated the Internet.
Fact: Since the birth of the Internet, the FCC has put in place clear rules to ensure fair competition and vibrant innovation.
Net neutrality will discourage investment.
Fact: During the years following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, ISP investment rose dramatically as new regulations were implemented.
Net neutrality will prevent ISPs from managing web congestion.
Fact: Proponents of net neutrality believe in ISP rights to network management techniques, as long as they are transparent to the public and preserve the openness of the current Internet.
Fiction: Net neutrality will stifle competition and innovation.
Fact: Without net neutrality protections, ISPs have a strong incentive to control the content that flows across their networks in a manner that reduces competition and consumer choice.
Fiction: Internet companies want net neutrality because it makes it free for them to deliver their content and services over other people's networks.
Fact: Today, Internet companies pay billions of dollars to transmit their content and services over the Internet, and consumers spend even more for the ability to access that content.
Fiction: The Obama administration wants the government to become an Internet traffic cop.
Fact: Net neutrality is the First Amendment of the Internet and protects free speech, as well as the consumer's choice of content and applications.

*For more on the misconceptions surrounding the open Internet, download S. Derek Turner’s Digital Déjà Vu: Old Myths in the Network Neutrality Debate.

The remarkable social impact and economic success of the Internet is in many ways directly attributable to the architectural characteristics that were part of its design. The Internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services ... [Just as] telephone companies cannot tell consumers who they can call; network operators should not dictate what people can do online.

- Google Vice President and “Chief Internet Evangelist” Vint Cerf