A "neutral" look at net neutrality

There is quite a bit of discussion about net neutrality these days, as the FCC is expected to set new policies for Internet use that may allow cable and telephone companies the right to charge content companies like Netflix, Google, or Facebook for speeding up transmissions to people’s homes.  

It is a heated debate and most media coverage on the topic is less than neutral. However, Justin Fox has a recent (5/12/14) article, Understanding the New Battle Over Net Neutrality, in Harvard Business Review that does a good job of explaining the issue, its history, and why it matters to consumers and small businesses alike. Fox's article describes the new possible FCC rules as less than 'neutral': "Early indications are that it will be an 'Animal Farm' sort of net neutrality, with some nets more neutral than others." His article lists the 11 things he has learned "while spending way too much time studying the topic over the past few days." So, if you want to jump start your knowledge on the open Internet issue, this might be good place to start. 

Here's a bit more background on net neutrality:

  • What is net neutrality?  According to Wikipedia: "Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication."  In other words, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) must provide an open Internet so small business and large businesses have equal access to the Internet no matter what the content or how much they are willing to pay – so no fast lanes for some and slow lanes for others. 

Tim Wu, 41, a law professor at Columbia University, is credited with developing the concept of net neutrality in 2003, which (in basic terms) states that the Internet should be treated as a utility, like telephone and cable companies, and should be available to all, without restrictions.

  • What is at the core of the debate? While the net neutrality issue came to the forefront in January after the D.C. Circuit rejected most of the FCCs "Open Internet" rules, you can trace the history of this debate back to the 1970s. According to CommonLawBlog.com: "Back in the dial-up days, the FCC distinguished between transporting Internet content and providing that content. It regulated the transport component of Internet service as common carriage, while leaving the provision and processing of content unregulated...With the advent of broadband, the FCC made a key change. It decided to treat the transport and provision components together as a single service, and deregulated all of it. Those rulings relinquished its common carrier authority over the transport component, a step that led directly to the D.C. Circuit’s striking down the FCC’s net neutrality rules."  This allows the FCC to redefine its policies around ISPs and how they manage content. Concerns are that there will be fast lanes for those large companies willing to pay a premium, and those that cannot afford the extra fees, such as start-ups and nonprofits, will be at a disadvantage with slower service.  

In an interview with the New York Times (5/10/14), Tim Wu explains his position in the current debate. “Sometimes what everybody thinks about the law is more important than what the law itself says…I think that’s what’s happened with net neutrality. It’s become a kind of norm of behavior, what you can and can’t appropriately do with the Internet. It’s got to be open. Except for legitimate purposes like protecting the network itself, there shouldn’t be discrimination against one form of content or another or one provider or another. And people generally accept that. Until now, the idea in a way has been more important than what the regulations have actually said.”