We tend to assume that the Internet is, in some basic sense, free. By this, we expect all information requested by a user to be transmitted to that user without discrimination by the company maintaining the network. The Internet would largely lose its defining characteristic as a way for individuals to access an unlimited wealth of information and content if those companies who control and operate the network could put up block or filters for specific types of content.
In a totally abstract way, this basic principle of “dumb” networks and smart terminals seems important. It also just so happens that the “end-to-end principle” — where discrimination between packets of information happens at the “ends” of the network — is a defining characteristic of the Internet. Net neutrality is the policy implication of this organizing principle and refers to the idea that, in the words of legal scholar Tim Wu, that a “maximally useful public information network aspires to treat all content, sites, and platforms equally.” Basically, an Internet provider like Verizon or Comcast can’t discriminate between the content and information that you want to access.
The net neutrality issue is a strange one. As of now, the Federal Communications Commission has established certain “principles” which basically mandate that networks be neutral, even if enforcement of these principles is slipshod. But with a new, regulation- and consumer-friendly administration in power, there is a new surge of interest in net neutrality. The commissioner of the FCC, Julius Genachowski, recently gave a speech laying out how the administration and the FCC plans to turn these vague principles into hard and fast rules.
The principles, summed up by Genachowski, are, “Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing the lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.” What Genachowksi wants the FCC to do is turn these principles into rules, meaning that Internet companies (which were released from FCC regulation because of the FCC’s traditional mandate to regulate telephone companies), would be brought back under the FCC umbrella.
The fifth principle that would be added would be non-discrimination, stating, in the words of Genachowksi, “…that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.” This principle is supposed to hedge against the possibility of service providers, like Comcast or AT&T, from establishing preferential access to certain types of content. In short, all data coming through your iPhone has to be treated the same. It’s enshrining this principle that’s perhaps most important going forward. Since Internet and cable companies are getting into the business of producing content, and since the possibilities for generating content on the Internet are always expanding, there’s a fear companies could try to hurt their competitors by having preferential network speed for their content or degraded speed for their competitors.
The sixth principle the FCC wants to adopt is that “providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices.” Because there are relatively few Internet service providers, the big ones have a large amount of power and influence, and since they provide a crucial public service – the Internet. It’s imperative that they manage their network in an open way.
But what does all of this mean? Is there an epidemic of broadband providers discriminating between individual packets? Should we be scared of broadband providers preferring packets that come from content they generate instead?
Yes and no. Generally, there are many opportunities and motives for this type of chicanery. Since so many people are getting their Internet, phone and cable service from the same provider, it’s only natural that ISPs would want to take advantage of this opportunity. For example, if you get Internet from Verizon, they would have a clear incentive to degrade or slow down information transmitted by Skype, so that you would spring for Verizon phone service as well.
Hypotheticals aside, there have been some clear cases of ISPs violating net neutrality principles. Most noticeably, Comcast was discovered to have been interfering with the operations of Gnutella, a peer to peer network and BitTorrent. While they had clearly violated FCC principles, it was unclear if the FCC had the authority to sanction Comcast, because the principles are not enforceable agency rules.
Although companies like AT&T and Comcast are complaining about government over-regulation of the Internet and the possibility that mandating equal access could remove the incentive for developing more, bigger and better content, what the FCC is proposing to do is merely a recognition of a basic fact about the Internet. It’s something that all the public relies on, and so regulators should, at every step, create rules that benefit users and allow for the Internet to be as free and open as possible. As the it becomes our gateway for more and more information, a clear signal from regulators that the World Wide Web won’t be carved up into separate niches or tiers by competing service providers is imperative.