Net Neutrality: A Brief Primer


Tomorrow, the FCC is expected to begin the process of determining Net neutrality rules that many believe could significantly impact the future of the Internet. Advocates and critics alike often portray it as a simple issue of Internet freedom, but the reality is somewhat more complicated. Here's a brief primer on the issue.

The Policy:
What is Net neutrality?

One of the difficulties in discussing Net neutrality is that there isn't always real agreement or understanding about what Net neutrality is.

Advocates like Art Brodsky, communications director for left-leaning tech advocacy group Public Knowledge, portray neutrality as crucial to keeping the Internet "open and non-discriminatory." Critics portray it as onerous government regulation, a virtual government takeover of the telecom sector that's likely to be a serious impediment to innovation.

Google, a key backer of neutrality legislation, explains it broadly as "the concept that the Internet should remain free and open to all comers." But when you wade into the details of the search giant's proposal, a number of serious contradictions become apparent.

For the FCC, neutrality has typically referred to four principles:

  • Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
  • Consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
  • Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
  • Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

Up until now, these have served as guidelines rather than formal rules. But at tomorrow's meeting, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to propose codifying these guidelines and adding two more: non-discrimination and transparency. Genachowski also plans to expand these rules to cover wireless data networks.

The Players: Who supports what?

In general, Republicans tend to be skeptical of net neutrality. Democrats, on the other hand, have split on the issue. Barack Obama made it a part of his campaign last year, and Congressional leadership is largely behind it. But in an October 15th letter, 72 House Democrats, including many Blue Dogs and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, expressed concerns that the policy might slow broadband deployment.

Neutrality advocates often portray the policy as a way of keeping the Internet free from corporate control. But the truth is that there are big corporations, and big corporate interests, on both sides. On the pro-neutrality side are the companies whose businesses operate at the edge of the web: Silicon Valley Web services like Facebook, Amazon, Google, and Twitter. On the other side are the companies who manage the Internet's core: ISPs like Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.

Much of the debate comes down to a power struggle between these two interests: Will network owners and administrators be allowed to determine access rules, prices, and traffic-management mechanisms on the networks they control? Or will the government step in and regulate those networks, forcing them to operate more or less as dumb pipes, thus shielding the edge-network, web-service companies whose business models rely on those networks from  management practices that they don't like?

With the installation of Julius Genachowski in the top spot at the FCC, it increasingly looks like the answer will be the latter.

Reason is no stranger to the topic of Net neutrality. I wrote up Genachowski's first big neutrality address here, and warned that the FCC might revive the idea of extending neutrality to wireless networks here. In 2006, Julian Sanchez argued that "there's no need for new laws to keep the Internet open" here.

Reason Foundation's Steve Titch argued that Net neutrality regulation would "hurt consumers, degrade the Internet, stifle voices and kill innovation" here. He also wrote a longer report on the potential problems with enforced neutrality here.  And Adrian Moore pointed out that, despite all the fuss, there's scant evidence of any—much less widespread—blocking by ISPs here.

NEXT: Building Ephemerisle

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  1. Genachowski is actually going to go through a formal process?

    I guess that’s to make his decision look all official-y and stuff. (Yes, I know it’s a vote. Do you really think Copps and Obama’s lapdogs will vote against it?)

    1. What’s the matter with Copps? He’s a good libertarian! Why, he’s on your site and you’re on his!

      Regarding NN, way back in October 2007 or before, Reason could have had an influence on BHO’s policies. Instead, they did nothing and allowed MoveOn to ask a setup question.

      If Reason – or another organization – had done something, they could have had an impact. Instead, they were too corrupt, too incompetent, or just too pathetic to do anything. Instead, what happened was like something out of the Politburo.

      But, hey, Reason’s latest intern has a wonderful summary of something that’s about to happen so at least they’re keeping you up-to-date on something that you have no control over, right?

      P.S. In case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs, thereby conceding my points and showing the childish, anti-intellectual nature of libertarians. Dozens of comments here have shown that the phrase “fascist libertarian” isn’t an oxymoron.

      1. YOU have no control over ANYTHING and you’re whining about it here. Just like everyone else. Don’t think it makes you special, like you’re speaking truth to the power that is Reason. It’s a fucking magazine, and the gov. is a fucking juggernaut.

        You could have a far greater impact on the world by starting your own PAC and going door to door for donations. Everyone who posts here realizes they are not actually changing anything (other than minds) when they post. They are letting off steam, playing drinking games, and making fun of Ezra Klein.

        But thanks to Reason keeping me up-to-date on the latest ruminations of Big Brother, I made sure to participate in the RDIB this summer, which, contrary to your opinion, actually did have an effect on American politics.

        In conclusion, STFU, LW. You should have a “nofollow” tag tattooed on your head.

      2. By way of a PS, 24AheadDotCom informs us that “in case anyone replies to this, their responses will almost assuredly be ad homs…’ Irony alert! That PS is, itself, a preemtory ad hominem attack. Oh, delicious irony!

  2. The problem is defining net neutrality. All the scary outcomes that people talk about are not only very rare, they’re already prohibited. But apparently we need extra laws to cover new things because the old already illegal things are very bad.

    Well, it works for hate crimes bills.

  3. It is a good litmus test for stupidity.

    cable companies and internet companies are reviled. who does not hate cable companies?

    Twitter, google and facebook are loved.

    Any person who is incapable of grasping how stupid and harmful net neutrality will be simply lacks the intelligence to over come their puppy love of cool companies that make products they like.

    1. cable companies and internet companies are reviled. who does not hate cable companies?

      Twitter, google and facebook are loved.

      It’s because the cable companies are commodities like the oil companies. We don’t really spend a lot of time thinking about what brand of gas we use in our car, but we have to buy it to get to work and go where we need, so we feel like we’re under their thumb.

      Google, twitter and facebook are products and services we seek by choice, and we can go elsewhere if we don’t like them.

      1. Had governments been prevented from assuming control of the cable companies we would have a larger number to choose from. Remember always that government does whats best for government first and whats best for citizens last. Same for any industry raided by politicians for votes and governments for revenue. If we are to operate as a free society we must minimize governments influence in every aspect of our lives that otherwise allow for free choice.

        A historical note: No monoply has ever existed in any business without the aid of government.

  4. Will net neutrality allow me to kick American broadband ISPs in the nuts due to the fact that our broadband speeds are about 20% of what they have in Europe and 10% of what they have in Asia? If so, I’m all for it.

    1. Nope. In fact, it will likely have the unintended consequence of making broadband more expensive. Why? Because much of the software used to route connections uses complex algorithms to find the shortest path between two points. To do that, you have to have preferences set between different networks and for different protocols. But net neutrality would make that kind of routing illegal, thus raising the difficulty of finding appropriate paths for a given packet to take. And as we all know, when you increase the difficulty of doing something, you indirectly increase its costs.

      1. Oh, I agree. It’s just a pet peeve of mine, so any opportunity I get to personally kick them in the nuts would be good. My comment was more complaining about that than thinking Net Neutrality would be anything but a negative for efforts towards faster broadband in the US.

      2. Akamai is illegal? That’s news to me.

      3. Net Neutrality would NOT make routing algorithms illegal. You know why? Because application data is stored in the application layer and routing is handled by the network layer. Internet Protocol used encapsulation so the applications sending the data didn’t have to deal with network issues like routing. The by-product of that is the network wasn’t designed to peek at the application data to take it into consider when deciding routing, which is actually what the ISPs are starting to do. Data discrimination is actually violating the original design of the internet. The networks were never meant to look at the application layer, only the layers they needed to transfer the data. It angers me that an idiot like you who has no idea what he is talking about sounds off something so completely false and tries to explain it using logic pulled out of your rear end, because people are going to read what you wrote and believe it to be true when it’s nothing but a bunch of lies.

        The ISPs shouldn’t be looking at the encapsulated data to decide how to route it, that is violating the original purpose of the Internet Protocol. The internet was never meant to be filled with toll booths or fast lanes, re-engineering it to accomplish that is what will increase the cost. They should be working with the layers that were designed to be used for routing to perform proper and efficient routing, and doing that is NOT going to be banned by net neutrality.

      4. What makes you think that increased costs are unintended?

    2. Andrew: See: MiniTel

      ’nuff said.

    3. 20% of what they have in Europe

      And unmetered.

  5. So net-neutrality laws would prohibit providers from blocking parts of the internet? This is something that competition would easily take care of without the government violating property rights.

    1. There does need to be some common carrier deregulation. But more government regulation (Net Neutrality) is exactly the wrong way to go.

  6. “”subject to the needs of law enforcement.””

    Why does everything have to have LEO exception these days?

    1. Because crime, teen horniness and violence are on the rise.

  7. Its called the “rule of law.”

  8. Here’s the nitty-gritty:
    1. ISPs and other net providers pay for the bandwidth required to service their clients (the pipe);
    2. Producers want to over hi-bandwidth services, like HD video and video file swapping, that can easily saturate the ISP bandwidth;
    3. To provide continuous service to all their other non-HD clients, ISPs will slow down the packet volume on those high-demand (and high expense) services;
    4. The providers want the government to *require* ISPs to treat all net sites the same, no matter the cost of satisfying the higher bandwidth (a far bigger “pipe”);

    In other words, Net Neutrality means that everyone’s costs will increase to satisfy the demands of a few high-bandwidth providers and users.

    In other words, everyone pays the same price for varying demands on the system. It’s simply an end-user tax to facilitate big-media video projects.

    1. In other words, Net Neutrality means that everyone’s costs will increase to satisfy the demands of a few high-bandwidth providers and users.

      Ha, sounds like health insurance “reform”.

    2. Demands of a few? Bandwidth is becoming an issue because we are increasingly becoming high-bandwidth users.

      They just really want to save bandwidth for streaming HD ad videos. 😉

    3. If the problem is high bandwidth users, then cable companies should charge for bandwidth. No one forces them to sell all you can eat internet.

    4. 4. The providers want the government to *require* ISPs to treat all net sites the same, no matter the cost of satisfying the higher bandwidth (a far bigger “pipe”);

      Wrong. They are able to limit bandwidth; they just aren’t able to limit bandwidth from site A while allowing site B unlimited bandwidth.

      In other words, they want to give you full HD streaming from while capping iTunes. All net neutrality says if you cap one, you cap all equally.

      1. if you cap one, you cap all equally.

        Explain to me why this is a good thing when we have communism as an existing example of this approach?

        1. Because this isn’t a political party we’re talking about, it’s a utility.

          You’re thinking it’s a good idea if the water company decides certain sections of the city don’t need all that much water today?

    5. Net neutrality does not mean greater government enforcement, not in an of itself. It means that when I buy bandwidth, each byte counts the same as every other byte against the value I have purchased.

      Ne neutrality imposes no costs on you at all, unless you pay a flat fee for unmetered service. If you do that you are begging to pay someone else’s freight, and its your bad, not theirs.

    6. You do realize that the ISPs will still be free to throttle individual users, right? That means if you are sucking down HD, they can slow down your entire connection so that the internet does not slow to a crawl for everyone. They simply can not violate the Internet Protocol by peeking at the data stored in the application layer to decide routing, that’s what the network layer is for. Peeking at the data is also more expensive because it’s not how the internet protocol was originally intended to function. When a company like Cox hires Sandvine to peek at the application layer, identify if it’s P2P or not and throttle it, that isn’t free, it costs more and raises the prices. It’s cheaper to let the Internet Protocol function as it’s supposed to and simply throttle individual user’s connections to prevent the saturation of the network.

  9. Having nothing to do with this particular post, after being on the fence for many months about this, I’m am now firmly against Net Neutrality. The thought that government can tell you how to build your network is an anathema to me.

    No, I don’t like the idea that Comcast shapes my traffic, but I know why they do it. And in some cases, with certain methods, I have defeated their traffic shaping.

    However, the government has no place telling people how their networks should run. It’s “The Fairness Doctrine” codified into an engineering whitepaper. Period. End of discussion.

    1. However, the government has no place telling people how their networks should run. It’s “The Fairness Doctrine” codified into an engineering whitepaper. Period. End of discussion.

      It’s more like not allowing someone to put up a bigger radio tower next to one that exists and drown out the first one.

      I’m OK with allowing certain types of prioritized packets, but completely against the idea that it should be legal to intentionally block access to certain sites. The backbone carriers are common carriers, and should be regulated as such.

      1. “It’s more like not allowing someone to put up a bigger radio tower next to one that exists and drown out the first one.”

        Except its not like that at all. Radio frequencies are a ‘limited resource’ – there are a finite number of frequencies that can be used. That’s the justification given to having the FCC regulate use of the airways. Conversely, you can expand the ‘net by building additional capacity.

    2. How the heck do you think it’s ok to allow individual companies to start violating the Internet Protocol by peeking at the data in the application layer to decide routing?

  10. Ugh. Why is it taking so long for this page to load?

    1. Talk to your network administrator. It’s loading fine for me.

      However, if Net Neurtrality gets passed into law, you’ll have to go to the Cyber Czar home page and file a complaint.

  11. one of the more inane arguments i’ve heard in favor of net neutrality when the issue of property rights is raised is “well, the gov’t gave the telecoms the land to build their infrastructure on”

    i was dumbfounded. quite the precedent people are willing to set for dumb shit like their god damn 4chan forums to remain unfettered.

    1. Interestingly, an event some months ago involving 4chan illustrates precisely why regulation isn’t needed… A routing change at AT&T rendered parts of 4chan unreachable. The ensuing shitstorm ensured that the error was corrected quickly.

      Imagine if it hadn’t been an accidental change… (Technically it wasn’t. There was a packet spoofing attack and AT&T thought it was coming from 4chan. The point is there was no malice on AT&T’s part.)

      Were any ISPs to attempt actual malicious content blocking, the error would be corrected quickly.

    2. So the government didn’t give right of way to the telcos, didn’t subsidize their infrastructure, doesn’t continue to subsidize rural broadband development, and they don’t have local monopolies preventing competitors stringing up their own wires?

      Wow, I never knew these guys carved out my broadband straight outta Galt’s Gulch. Or maybe we want to use the net under the rules it uses now, because innovation seems to happen at Google, but not so much at Quest.

  12. I never understand why this is even an argument. The Googles and Facebooks of the world clearly want more people to see their ads and use their services, and the best way to do that is to get the Government to turn the Comcasts of the world in to public utilities.

    It’s like Michael Moore arguing that we should be more like France and give everyone “free” healthcare.

    Any libertarian with half a lick of sense should realize that this is clearly a chance for the government to get it’s dirty paws on yet another service that isn’t either “free” or a “right”, and every time they do this the service gets both MORE expensive and LESS efficient.

  13. I don’t get this debate at a very fundamental level. The Internet (proper name spelled with a capital ‘I’) is a set of specifications that are not controlled by any country’s government.

    If you want to call yourself an Internet Service Provider (ISP) then you adhere to the Internet specifications. If you have a communication infrastucture that supports the Internet specs and something else, then you just have to differentiate the ISP services from that something else so the customer knows what he is buying.

    1. There’s nothing about the IP protocol that dictates packet management. Like an earlier poster said, this is all about an attempt for high bandwidth content providers/users to get their bandwidth subsidized by lower bandwidth users.

  14. There’s nothing about the IP protocol that dictates packet management.

    Agree. And I doubt there is anything in cab drivers’ pocket manual that says you should not take your customers from Pasadena to LAX by way of Riverside driving at 45 mph. Crappy service is a not a always problem that requires government intervention.

  15. The problem with all the people squawking that competition would solve the problems net neutrality proposes to is the fact that THERE IS NO COMPETITION. Only monopolies or duopolies blessed by local municipalities. Telcos and cable companies would easily collude to degrade their product and it would no longer be the internet but a walled garden.

    Bandwidth shaping and QoS are NOT the same as blocking a site until the content provider pays up, which is what net neutrality is about. It’s double charging for bandwidth the content providers already paid for.

    1. Then fix the actual problem!

      Instead of net neutrality, end municipality monopoly power.

      1. The local cable company won’t build out the last mile without a guarantee of a monopoly.

        The last mile is expensive, and the cable company isn’t going to spend that money unless they are guaranteed to make their money back and get some profit.

        The monopoly is a demand of the cable company not necessarily the requirement of the municipality.

        Unless the government wants to spend tax dollars to build out the last mile and then allow any company to connect to their pipes — but somehow I don’t think libertarians would support that solution.

        And even when government have tried that, the ISP have sued.

        Check out what happened in Monticello, MN when the town decided to build its own fiber network that would have allowed anyone to connect to it and give their users a choice of ISPs because the local ISP wouldn’t do it.

        The ISP sued saying that it’s unfair competition and that the government doesn’t have to right to use taxpayer dollars for that. And the lawsuit was delaying tactic. The ISP filed the suit, got a TRO and then deployed their own fiber to get a hold of the market before the town could deploy an open network that would allow competition.

        1. If necessary, the way to do it is to make the last mile a utility, but anyone can provide service over it.

          This, building the last mile will me profitable and a monopoly, but it will be done be literally the “cable” company and not the content provider.

          Not the preferred option, but if we are going to have government monopolies, the monopolies should be on the hardware, not the service.

          Ditto power companies and phone companies (actually, its already happened with phone – hence the whole 1980s battles between AT&T/MCI/Sprint/etc.).

          1. This already happens with DSL service too. My office DSL provider doesnt own the last mile – BellSouth (now AT&T) does. They pay to use the wire, but they provide the internet service.

  16. Whooo!!! The government is stepping in to cure all of our internet ills!

    They’re going to take one of the freest things on Earth, add some regulation, and make it even freer through mandate! Awesome!

    And “why not?, you might ask. After all, it worked so well with Ma Bell that we have zero reason to think it’s going to work on the internet!

    I mean, come on, Ma Bell was the most successful government backed monopoly of all time! Why, it beat the educational system hands down when it came to retarding technological innovations, providing bad service, and keeping prices and fees for telecommunications sky high!

    All this under the extraordinarily competent eye of the FCC!

    How could this idea not be a winner???

    1. edit:

      And “why not?, you might ask. After all, it worked so well with Ma Bell that we have zero reason to think it’s not going to work on the internet!

    2. They’re going to take one of the freest things on Earth…

      Actually it’s not that crazy. They’re well on their way to regulating air. Better think twice before exhaling that CO2!

      The government’s answer to a top heavy market riddled with incestuous ties to Washington? Make it even more top heavy and give it even more ties to Washington!!!

      Screw competition! When you’re a giant, competition isn’t your friend. Government is your friend. Compliance is your friend. Lobbying for your special regulation (wink, nod) is your friend. All those things make it harder on your smaller competitors.

  17. I’m for true net neutrality; you know the kind without government interference. The kind that the market decides the winners, rather than the politicians. Where I live ATT, previously Bellsouth has had the virtual strangle hold on phone and DSL. While their arch enemy comcast has held a hold on cable and internet. Finally they are allowed to compete against one another. What do we get, but two companies that have given large sums of money to my state government to maintain their power.

  18. Screw net neutrality. What about net freedom?

    1. This is really profit neutrality or “I’m entitled to amazing shit and no one is allowed to make a profit on it or do something that would make me take my business elsewhere.”

      1. Sounds like you just like large telcos to make profits, not internet startups.

  19. There is also the ‘last-mile’ problem to consider. Most of these backbone core servicers like Comcast AT&T etc.. are also the same organizations that provide and service the connections between the backbone and your house, and thats what gets very expensive. Until recently it was next to impossible for a new competitor to enter the market, because no matter what they would still have had to rent the last length of wire and the local switches from whatever happens to be the local utility company.

    So if you are a ‘new isp’, but you don’t own neither the last piece of wire, nor the backbone fibers what service are you actually providing. None, you essentially become a reseller of that utility’s services, so maybe you get a ‘commission’ cut and maybe a bit more for running your own tech support call center.

    It is also important to consider that alot (most?) of these last mile connections weren’t paid out of pocket by the existing utilities, they came about via taxes, subsidies and monopolies. So at that point I was split on net-neutrality.

    However, with the recent advances in wireless broadband, the barriers to entry have been greatly reduced. The utilities have also stepped up and started doing their own additions to the last mile connections, mostly via fiber optics, like FiOS.

    So at this point any argument for government mandates net neutrality regulations is pretty much complete BS. If Google doesn’t like that Comcast is throttling You Tube HD videos, go and buy some cell towers and create free unthrottled hotspots, not try to force your competitor to carry your content for free.

  20. Yes the same companies that were granted monopolies for years, and secretly put switches so the government can monitor all your communications without a warrant, would never work with the government to censor voices it doesn’t like.

    I think some Libertarians don’t understand the difference between a private company and a de facto for profit government arm.

    1. Then make the argument for more competition, not more regulation. I agree that the government helped create the Ma Bell monopoly and is just propping up regional monopolies now. It wreaks of fascism. But the LAST thing we need is the government to “fix” another problem they created.

      A year of no laws and no new taxes would be a very good year for those who are trying to compete with the big guys.

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