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.