In the occasional rough-and-tumble of where business, politics and the Internet meet, the phrase net neutrality has become fighting words. It’s an easy bet that most people have no idea what net neutrality means, let alone what the fight’s about. At stake, however, may be the future shape and cost of the Internet.
The phrase net neutrality is relatively new, coming into popular use as recently as 2003, as noted by the scholarly article Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination by Tim Wu of Columbia Law School. But the issues at play are as old as last century’s technology battles over telephones and telegraphs.
The concept is fairly simple: net neutrality guarantees that every user of the Internet — no matter how large or small, rich or poor, and regardless of purpose — will be treated equally in terms of access, bandwidth, and inter-connectivity. The analogy is made to the nation’s telephone network: the customer can choose his or her equipment, service, or purpose of the call, but once connected to the “common carrier” network of phone lines is to be considered equal to everyone else.
In this view the Internet — like networks of phone, gas or civic water systems — is a public good that everyone has an equal right to use.
In the early days of the Web there was little debate about this principle, largely because there was very little need: online traffic was limited and commerce non-existent. But as the Internet grew more complex and commercialized, a growing number of interests began calling for greater traffic regulation.
Industry network heavyweights like Comcast, AT&T and others say they need to be able to control network traffic, allowing users and providers varying degrees of bandwidth — at varying costs — to keep the Internet running smoothly and profitably. These firms have spent millions trying to convince regulators and the public that without these tools and controls, the web may lose any competitive advantages it has.
Content providers, like Google, Yahoo!, Amazon and others warn that such control would be tantamount to a shut-off valve that networks could use to slow or speed traffic at their choice. That, they say, would end the essential openness of the Internet and kill innovation, and they, too, have spent freely in the battle. Both sides have sought to bolster their message by partnering with a cross-section of political interest groups from across the ideological spectrum.
Net neutrality has also pitted Congress against the Federal Communications Commission to some degree, with Washington watching closely to see which side comes out on top. Under the Constitution, the Legislative Branch – Congress — has the right to shape policy through the “power of the purse” — the sole branch of government with the authority to tax and spend. However the FCC, as part of the Executive Branch, has the responsibility of executing public laws — in their case, protecting the public airwaves from dispute or disruption.
Tuesday the FCC is scheduled to vote on a series of net neutrality rules and principles put forward by Chairman Julius Genachowski. Lawmakers, business and interests groups have all been weighing in on the proposed rule-making, calling for its passage or defeat.