Network neutrality—or net neutrality as it’s often called—is making news again. In the first week of August 2010, Google, one of the largest of the content providers, and Verizon, a major communications carrier, proposed a seven-part set of policies to manage the internet, “A joint policy proposal for an open internet.” Perhaps the most controversial of these is an option to establish “differentiated online services;” in a word, a structured or tiered fee structure for priority information transmission. There is a second and equally important component to the debate. Given changes in technology and the emergence of the wireless internet, are there fundamental differences between the wireless and wired internet; and if so, are there different philosophical and technical and therefore different regulatory regimes for the wired and wireless internet? A distinction has already been made between “traditional” communications (telephony, broadcast radio, and television) and the various information services provided over the internet (WWW, ftp, email, VoIP, etc). Are there further distinctions to be drawn between the wired and wireless internet?
The most recent but certainly not the last set of interests expressed over network neutrality is the Google-Verizon proposal. In recent months, groups as diverse as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the American Library Association, Facebook, and Republicans in the Senate have sought to influence the many aspects of internet and broadband policy. If, for example, the Google-Verizon proposal is adopted by Congress and perhaps managed by the FCC, the principle of network neutrality would be reversed. Several major corporations, among them AT&T and Level 3 Communications have endorsed the proposal. Others, Facebook and Twitter among them, have weighed in in-favor of network neutrality.
Network neutrality is one component of a complex global system of managing information flows. Interference with network neutrality come in two forms: (1) restriction or censorship of information transmission and (2) differential transmission and access based on fees paid or other criteria (tiered service). Network neutrality is challenged for a variety of reasons. Consider recent policies in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and now India to restrict Blackberry messaging within their borders or the dispute between Google and China on search set content. The Blackberry brouhaha involves too secure encryption, the China-Google affair censorship. In the U.S., network neutrality has more economic roots.
The basic principle of network neutrality is that there should be no impediments, political, legal, or economic, to the movement of content on the internet. At the basis of the concept, all data, all information transmitted over the internet is managed by the transmission companies equally. The proponents of tiered service would give preference to one set of information providers over others based on willingness to pay for preferential transmission or other criteria.
If you will, there are four primary “actors” in the American network neutrality debate. Content providers make up the first set—those people who bring us websites of all sizes, shapes, and stuff. At the other end of the “pipe” there are the end users. And then there is the “pipe,” the network through which content flows from content providers to content consumers. And fourth, there are governments that seek to regulate information transmission and, on occasion, the content.
For better or for worse, the internet is largely unregulated in the U.S. During the 2008 presidential campaign, then candidate and Senator Obama campaigned in support of network neutrality. The FCC, one possible regulator of the internet, has at times been more or less favorably inclined toward internet regulation. Since 2009, the FCC has sought to extend its competence into internet regulation. In March 2010, the FCC sought to expand its regulatory competence in outlining a National Broadband Plan. But in April 2010, the FCC found its jurisdiction limited by a decision of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. According to the Court, the FCC has limited regulatory authority over the internet, internet transmission companies (in this case, Comcast), and in the transmission of packets over the medium. Efforts by the FCC to regulate network neutrality may be further limited if a bill recently introduced in the Senate passes (the Freedom for Consumer Choice Act, S.3624). If S.3624 is any indicator, network neutrality has become another player in the ideological divide in Congress and American politics in general. At least one FCC Commissioner, Michael Copps, in an FCC news release on the Verizon-Google announcement has called for the FCC to “…reassert FCC authority over broadband telecommunications…”
So as not to tip my hand (I am a proponent of network neutrality), broadband regulation in general and network neutrality in specific will remain in play. As things now stand, at least according to the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, there is little formal federal regulatory authority over the internet. That, of course, could change. The FCC or some other federal agency could be vested by Congress with that authority to one degree or another. Somehow, in the current environment, I don’t expect to see anything anytime too soon.
For a comprehensive discussion of global implications of network neutrality, see Internet Governance Project, Syracuse University, Net Neutrality as Global Principle for Internet Governance, Nov. 5, 2007: http://www.internetgovernance.org/pdf/NetNeutralityGlobalPrinciple.pdf
For network neutrality updates—Resource Shelf at http://www.resourceshelf.com/2010/08/09/press-review-google-and-verizon-make-a-joint-proposal-for-an-open-internet/