internet neutrality

Issue in Brief

Everyone seems to be talking about internet neutrality. From the ‘father of the internet,' Vint Cerf (who testified before congress on the subject) to Senator Clinton, to a whole chorus of think tanks, newspapers and blogs, ‘net neutrality' has become quite the buzzword lately. Many want to write it into law, others want think Congress should keeps hands off, but few seem to know exactly what it is.

Really important background info: there's some stuff you've just got to know first.

  • Telecommunications companies (think Qwest, AT&T, or Verizon) and internet service providers (ISPs, like Comcast, Time-Warner Cable, and others) own most of the backbone of the internet. All ‘net traffic goes through their cables.

  • When we buy internet access, we either buy it from these companies, or from another company that does. When a ‘web content provider (like Amazon, Yahoo, or even citizenJoe) buys internet access, it works in exactly the same way—they just pay more for a connection that can carry more data.

The definition:

Definitions vary, but the most basic understanding of network neutrality is that the pipelines should play no role in deciding which information gets priority going through their lines. The way network neutrality tries to do this is by making sure the telecoms and ISPs only charge the 'web content providers extra for how much they send over the network, not what they send.

So, for example: in a ‘neutral' system, AT&T could charge Google extra for its connection to the internet because a lot of people visit google.com, but it couldn't charge Google more simply because AT&T had a ‘strategic partnership' with Ask.com, or Yahoo. Internet neutrality would also prohibit special, fast 'lanes' just for video, internet telephone service and other content that needs a speedy connection, lanes that the Googles of the world would have to pay to enter.

Many support such regulations, claiming that it would be unfair for the telecoms to practice discriminatory pricing. Neutrality opponents, on the other hand, see these behaviors as perfectly normal—why, they ask, should the telecoms be told how to run the internet pipeline they own? Neutrality advocates counter that the internet, like telephone services, electricity, and our highways, should fall under rules that guarantee fair access for all. With a lot of potential profit and innovation on the line, though, the debate has gotten very heated, and more than a little bit confused. To clear things up, here are the sides:

Neutrality Bytes!

Opponents of net neutrality— “de-regulationists”—tend to dislike government involvement in the Internet. They believe that future ‘net innovations will come from the major telecoms, and that neutrality will only hold them back. They argue that the telecoms and internet service providers (ISPs) were the ones who created the Internet in the first place, and that they have the right to freely compete to develop and profit from it. If the government passes net neutrality laws, they say, the telecoms will lose money in the name of “internet freedom,” and if they can't charge what they want, they won't have any incentive or ability to improve their services to us. They also think that the practice of creating specific 'lanes' for video and other high-speed content will help consumers get what they want quickly, and might even keep important services from being slowed down by high 'net traffic.

Many opponents of congressional action think that 'neutrality' is actually a good thing, but that legislation to mandate it wouldn't be. They think that competition in the market would take care of the problem without any regulation - and that once Congress steps in to regulate any industry, it is bound to skew the market in unpredictable and negative ways.

Neutral or nothing!

Proponents of net neutrality—“openists”—see the Internet as a basic commodity, like electricity: an important resource to be developed. For this reason, they believe that Internet access shouldn't be controlled by the telecoms and ISPs, but that “net neutrality” laws should ensure equal access for all. They are quick to pose the scenario mentioned above: greedy telecoms, they say, would levy extra fees against content providers, (think Google, facebook.com, Yahoo, Flickr) slow down or choke off their connections in order to promote similar services that they own.

And when the “cons” talk about a barrier to innovation, openists say that the major innovations don't come from the telecoms anyway, but from the content providers. If the telecoms could charge as they pleased, they're quick to add, the eBays and the craigslists of the world would be poorer and unable to innovate. Not only that, they say that separate 'lanes' for video and such would be the end of any new craigslists or facebook.coms; startups, unable to pay the fee for the lane, would never get off the ground.

Neutrality-lovers respond to those who say the free market will take care of the problem on its own by saying that the free market is nowhere to be seen here: ever since the '84 breakup of the AT&T monopoly, the telecoms have been merging. What was once a competitive field of 10 companies is now down to three: Qwest, AT&T and Verizon. Plus, they say, most consumers don't have a choice between ISPs anyway--this means that there isn't enough competition for the free market to take care of the situation.

The bigger picture:

At the heart of the matter is a disagreement about what the internet should be. Pro-neutrality people see internet access as kind of like water—what if the water utility charged extra for cleaner water, or offered it for free to their corporate partners? Everyone deserves water, neutrality fans say—they pay for how much they use, but no one gets better water for being friends with the water company. These folks claim that ‘freedom' is what made the internet great in the first place, and that the internet should be kept that way, similar to telephones, water and electricity.

Neutrality opponents argue that the ‘net is more like an apartment building, with the telecoms as landlord—they own the building, so why shouldn't they be able to charge what they'd like for a room? That's tied to the claim that if they can charge more, they'll be able to improve the internet—or, to stick with the analogy, add a few windows or a balcony to the rooms.

What's going on now?

In '06 there was small army of bills about internet neutrality - and any action on internet neutrality was looking like it'd come attached to a telecoms reauthorization bill. In a House version of the bill, passed in 2006, lawmakers opted not to do an all out ban on any differential tiering of internet traffic. That looked like it could change in 2007, with the Democrats - who are more partial to net neutrality - taking over the Congress and possibly rewriting the telecoms bill, but the issue somehow faded by the end of '07. In the meantime, the FCC Chair has enforced net neutrality in a piecemeal fashion. (WP & WP)

Links:

Nonpartisan/informational:

  • The Center for Democracy and Technology maintains a ‘Net Neutrality Reading Room' which furnishes viewpoints from both sides, as well as some hard data. It can get quite technical, but the “News Articles” and “Consumer groups and think tanks” sections are useful.

Pro-neutrality:

  • Slate has a well-written piece in favor of internet neutrality here .

  • Vint Cerf, often credited as the ‘father of the internet,' (now, he works for Google) testified before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation about internet neutrality. The transcript can be found here . (Senate.gov)

  • Save The Internet is very partisan but also fairly comprehensive.

Anti-Neutrality:

  • A Washington Post Editorial says the fears about losing 'net neutrality are overstated - and that we may stand more to gain by letting the telecoms innovate.

  • Another editorial from The San Jose Mercury talks about future dangers of neutrality.

  • A CNet article recounts a cable company exec's thoughts on the matter.

Wait and See

Updated August 4, 2008

Did we miss something, let some slant slip in, lose a link - or do you just have something to say?
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