Net neutrality

Net neutrality is the principle that data on the Internet is moved blindly and impartially, without regard to content, destination or source.

Net neutrality is the principle that data packets on the Internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source. Net neutrality is sometimes referred to as the "First Amendment of the Internet."

Although no country is in charge of regulating the Internet, the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has considerable influence. In 2010, the FCC extended carrier network rules to Internet Service Providers (ISPs), requiring them to offer fair and equal access to the Internet for all content, as long as the content is legal. These rules held broadband providers to the same standards as telecom carriers in the United States, which have to offer equal-access telephone lines.

Early in 2014, however, a Court of Appeals ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to extend carrier network rules to ISPs and people began to speculate about whether or not the FCC would use its power to reclassify Internet service as a telecommunications service. Proponents of this approach believed it was a simple solution that would give the FCC the power to legally enforce common carrier rules and therefore, Net neutrality.

Opponents to this approach have pointed out that if the FCC reclassified Internet service as a telecommunications service, it would essentially turn Internet in the United States into a utility, which would give the government power to regulate the Internet. Opponents to reclassification maintain that this approach would deny the Internet its openness and freedom and that the market, not the government, should determine the future of the Internet. In the meantime, the FCC has decided to revise its rules for ISPs and sidestep the reclassification issue for the moment.

In the United States, high-speed Internet carriers, including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon, are seeking support for a two-tiered Internet service model. In a two-tiered model, carriers would be able to charge content providers a premium fee for priority placement and faster speed across their pipes.

Critics of the two-tiered model believe that the extra costs incurred for premium service will be passed down to the consumer and that some type of legislation should be in place to protect the interests of the public. They point out that in a Net-neutral environment, small, independent sites are on an even playing field with large, corporately-owned sites and that is what has sparked innovation and economic growth. 

Proponents of the two-tiered model point out that a tiered business model already exists: consumers have a choice of using a slower dial-up service or paying a premium price for faster speed over cable or DSL and Internet service providers already prioritize traffic for quality of service (QoS). They maintain that legislating the Internet would be an unnecessary barrier to innovation and economic growth.


This was first published in May 2014

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