Posted By: Chris Fong
Regulating the internet is not just limited to interactions over the internet. Internet regulations also include the control over access to the internet and the information provided through the internet. In the United States the issue of what can be accessed online and how to access it is a highly debated issue. Network (“Net”) Neutrality is one attempt to regulate access to the internet with the goal that all internet traffic will be treated equally.
Network Neutrality was introduced in an Internet Policy Statement by the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) through the agency rulemaking process. In support of the FCC’s Net Neutrality, Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, wrote in support of Net Neutrality a “To Whom this May Concern” letter to the FCC detailing importance of having Net Neutrality. Mr. Wozniak claims Net Neutrality is the reason information on the web is distributed in an unbiased manner and is accessible to everyone with a computer, in a designated area, for the same cost.
Though, the House of Representatives voted in 2011 to overturn the rules passed by the FCC on Network Neutrality. The following two subsections will summarize the arguments for and against Net Neutrality.
Proponents of Net Neutrality range from Vinton Cerf, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol (the “IP”) and current Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, to Professor Robert Waterman McChesney, a professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. President Barack Obama has also shown his support for Net Neutrality. “During a speech on innovation, President Obama issued his support for net neutrality rules proposed by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski. ‘I’m pleased that he’s taking that step,’ the president said during an appearance in Troy, New York. ‘That’s an important role that we can play, laying the ground rules to spur innovation…and…ensure that there’s a level playing field for all comers who seek to contribute their innovations.’” The principle purpose of Net Neutrality is to ensure the internet remains a free and open technology. The arguments for Net Neutrality fall on issues like the control of data, digital rights and freedoms, competition and innovation, and preserving internet end-to-end principle.
One of the issues pushed by proponent Vinton Cerf is the control of data. “The internet was designed with no gatekeepers over new content or services. The internet is based on a layered, end-to-end model that allows people at each level of the network to innovate free of any central control.” Vinton Cerf makes an original purpose argument, claiming the original purpose and structure of the internet should be maintained so as to not undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success. An original purpose argument primarily focuses on preventing change, such as the implementation of government regulations on the internet, and maintaining the status quo.
Another issue involves digital rights and freedoms on the internet. In a Washington Post opinion article, Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Harvard Law School, and, the previously mentioned, Robert McChesney argues that the monopolization of the internet would bog down independent news organizations, and innovative and novel web content. Monopolization of the internet is a prediction of a cyber-world where the Internet Service Providers (the “ISP”) stand as gatekeepers on digital information, allowing the ISP to determine what their customer can and cannot access. Lessig proposes that monopolization of the internet will lead to ISP demanding a toll to guarantee quality delivery of a website’s content. Professors Lessig and McChesney’s concerns are not unfounded, in recent policy changes, companies such as Cox Communications and CenturyLink have put into place a maximum limitation for internet usage.
The majority of content on the internet is provided by “regular people,” not corporations. If ISPs are allowed to continue or escalate their control over access to and content on the internet, ISPs are being granted a monopoly over the internet, more specifically content created by regular people. Likely, the monopolization of the internet in favor of ISPs would hinder creativity and innovation by limiting the collaboration and dissemination of information through the internet. Net neutrality would allow the free flow of user provided content and thus, promoting creativity and innovation.
The internet end-to-end principle describes that application specific functions should fall to the end host/computer in a network, like the internet, than the intermediary notes, such as an ISP. In other words, access to the information traveling over the internet should be determined by the end user, not the ISP. “Net neutrality means simply that all like Internet content must be treated alike and move at the same speed over the network. The owners of the Internet’s wires cannot discriminate. This is the simple but brilliant ‘end-to-end’ design of the Internet that has made it such a powerful force for economic and social good.”
The opponents to Net Neutrality include the Cato Institute, the Goldwater Institute, members of the cable and telecommunications industries, Professor David Farber, and Transmission Control Protocol (“TCP”) inventor Bob Kahn. The arguments against Net Neutrality include violation of property rights, concerns over innovation and investment, and bandwidth limitations.
Generally, property rights allow for the owner to alienate, exclude, use, or alter their property. The property rights argument against Net Neutrality focuses on the property rights of the ISP to be able to sell “premium” internet services to their customers. Alex Epstein, a researcher on Net Neutrality, believes the ISP probably will not be providing a lower service to customers on the “non-premium” service plan.
The primary business function of an ISP, however, is to produce and sell internet access. Firstly, we must determine whether internet access can be designated as property. Internet access is necessary for any user to view, add, edit, copy, or obtain information on the internet. Additionally, internet access is dependent on the development and maintenance of network infrastructure, such as cables, central ISP facilities, and information technology service departments. The network infrastructure is created and maintained by ISPs. After, ISPs sell the ability to use the network infrastructure to access the internet to users. ISPs are under no obligation to provide access to their network infrastructure for free. Thus, ISPs have the right to alienate, use, exclude, or alter their network infrastructure and access to their network infrastructure.
In addition, some critics are concerned that net neutrality will impede innovation and reduce the return on investment for investment on broadband networks. These critics cite prioritization of bandwidth is necessary for future internet innovation. Internet traffic has increased sharply as video streaming websites, like youtube, Netflix, and Hulu, and peer-to-peer file sharing became more common. ISP have a limited bandwidth on their network and have proposed ways to manage the bandwidth to combat the increased bandwidth usage. For example; in the United Kingdom an ISP is able to prioritize their limited bandwidth to those websites willing to pay a premium for preferential treatment, these funds are intended to be used to expand the current broadband network or in research to improve the network.