The Internet has revolutionized society like no other invention before it. Gutenberg’s printing press was widely hailed as having the greatest influence on the course of human history – until the Internet came along.
I often think to myself how lucky we were to be born and raised during the “Digital Revolution” at a time when the Internet was born and flourished. With the advent of the PC, the Internet and the World Wide Web, we are digital pioneers with a front row seat to the brave new world that our children will one day inherit.
Now that the Internet is out of its infancy and we have all become quite familiar with email, Google, and Facebook there is a very important discussion taking place across the country – Network Neutrality. I have been reading about net neutrality for a while now but with discussions heating up with the FCC and private companies I have seen a number of articles and tweets about the subject. What really piqued my interest was an article that mentioned the Government providing food stamps for poorer Americans for broadband access. This type of commoditizing Internet access really struck me as odd.
But what exactly is net neutrality?
At its simplest network neutrality is the principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. For example, if a given user pays for a certain level of Internet access, and another user pays for the same level of access, then the two users should be able to connect to each other at the subscribed level of access.
At its inception, the Internet was viewed as the ultimate, pure communication medium and it was originally developed by the Department of Defense to connect computers at different locations. But now that it has developed into a commercial medium instead of a purely communication medium, how will the Internet be “divvied up” in the future?
As with any legislation or polarized debate, the first thing I look to see is who are the supporters and who are the opponents? Here are a couple of quotes that sum up the main arguments:
According Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney:
“Without net neutrality, the Internet would start to look like cable TV. A handful of massive companies would control access and distribution of content, deciding what you get to see and how much it costs. Major industries such as health care, finance, retailing and gambling would face huge tariffs for fast, secure Internet use … Most of the great innovators in the history of the Internet started out in their garages with great ideas and little capital. This is no accident. Network neutrality protections minimized control by the network owners, maximized competition and invited outsiders in to innovate. Net neutrality guaranteed a free and competitive market for Internet content.”
Proponents of net neutrality include consumer advocates, online companies and some technology companies. These proponents such as Yahoo! claim that without network neutrality telecom companies will seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline that is the Internet. They fear that it will have the effect of removing competition from the marketplace, creating an artificial scarcity and forcing subscribers to buy services in an uncompetitive market. Many proponents believe that net neutrality preserves our current Digital freedoms, including Vinton Cerf (considered a “father of the Internet), Tim Berners-Lee (creator of the Web), and many other leading experts and thinkers have spoken out in favor of network neutrality.
Robert Pepper thinks differently:
“The supporters of net neutrality regulation believe that more rules are necessary. In their view, without greater regulation, service providers might parcel out bandwidth or services, creating a bifurcated world in which the wealthy enjoy first-class Internet access, while everyone else is left with slow connections and degraded content. That scenario, however, is a false paradigm. Such an all-or-nothing world doesn’t exist today, nor will it exist in the future. Without additional regulation, service providers are likely to continue doing what they are doing. They will continue to offer a variety of broadband service plans at a variety of price points to suit every type of consumer.”
Opponents of net neutrality include large hardware companies and members of the cable and telecom industries. They characterize its regulations as “a solution in search of a problem”, arguing that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Further, they feel that websites like YouTube free ride off an infrastructure developed, built, and paid for by the telecom industry. This opposition comes from think tanks such as the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, Goldwater Institute and Americans for Tax Reform, in addition to telecom companies like AT&T and Verizon.
While net neutrality may not be the most fair paradigm for the telecom companies, it seems to be the most fair system for the consumers and businesses that utilize the Internet. Could you imagine if YouTube had to pay extra for all the video running through their pipes? Or if a company like T-Mobil could prevent competition like Skype from operating on their broadband structure.
Further, without net neutrality broadband companies will be able to restrict certain types of Internet traffic and competition. And this has already happened in our non-broadband world with P2P traffic, what makes you think it won’t happen on our new broadband world?
For example in Germany in April 2009, T-Mobile announced that it was blocking Skype, even though Skype is both a key application for voice communication over the Internet and consumes only a small amount of bandwidth. The problem is that T-Mobile is the largest German mobile telecommunication company and Skype would compete with some of T-Mobile’s products and services. T-Mobile offers Internet access solely in conjunction with telephone landline access, therefore directly competing with Skype.
Much like the great copyright debate and the Entertainment Industry claiming that the ‘sky is falling’ with every new invention since the Player Piano, the net neutrality debate is nothing new under the sun and will continue for decades to come. The concept of network neutrality predates the current Internet focused debate, existing since the age of the telegraph. In 1860, the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860 was passed to subsidize a telegraph line. In 1888, Almon Brown Strowger invented an automatic telephone exchange to bypass non-neutral telephone operators who redirected calls for profit – and as you can tell the telecom industry is still here and flourishing.
Who holds the key to your digital future? In August 2010, Google and Verizon reached an agreement where they both decided to support a limited degree of network neutrality. While this agreement could be a step forward and encourage other cable companies to support net neutrality, the agreement has been criticized because of the belief that it does not protect network neutrality as strongly as it should.
What truly scares me is that most Americans don’t seem to care … I guess they are too concerned with more pressing matters like Lindsay Lohan and her jail time.
 Food stamps for broadband would bring slow ‘Net to the poor
 Net neutrality: what is it and what does it mean?
 No Trolls on the Internet
 Many major Internet application companies are advocates of neutrality, including Yahoo, Vonage, EBay, Amazon, and Microsoft has also taken a stance in support of neutrality regulation.
 Network Neutrality
 Robert Pepper is the senior managing director of global advanced technology policy at Cisco Systems and is the former FCC chief of policy development.
 Network Neutrality: Avoiding a Net Loss
 What is the Net Neutrality Debate?
 The Act states that, “messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of the government shall have priority …”
 Almon Brown Strowger
 Net neutrality crusaders slam Verizon, Google
 Is there a “caring about broadband” divide in the US?