Definition

Net Neutrality

Contributor(s): Kate Gerwig

Net Neutrality is the principle that data packets on the internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source. The term originated in a paper written by Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu in 2003, entitled "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination."

In the United States, the debate about Net Neutrality centers around the question of government regulation and whether internet access should be legally classified as an opt-in service or a public utility. If internet service providers (ISPs) in the U.S. furnish information services, they fall under Title I of the Communications Act of 1934 and are regulated by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). If they provide a utility, however, they fall under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and are regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

For much of the history of the internet, companies that provided broadband internet access were classified as information services and were overseen by the FTC. In 2010, under the Obama administration, the Federal Communications Commission ruled that broadband internet providers were common carriers and as such, would be regulated under Title II.

This change in classification gave the FCC the legal power to prohibit broadband internet providers from slowing or blocking internet content delivery to consumers. It also prohibited broadband providers from prioritizing traffic from edge providers  who are willing to pay higher fees for faster delivery, a practice known as zero rating. The ruling was challenged in the court system, but upheld.

In June 2018, under a new presidential administration, the FCC reversed its decision and ordered that broadband internet access service be returned to its Title I classification. The official reason for the reclassification is to "eliminate burdensome regulation that stifles innovation and deters investment and empower Americans to choose the broadband internet access service that best fits their needs." The new order, which is entitled "Restoring Internet Freedom," promotes transparency under current antitrust and consumer protection laws.

Net Neutrality debate

ISPs including AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Verizon favor a two-tiered internet service model that permits zero rating and allows them to charge a premium fee for priority placement and faster speed across their carrier network pipes. They maintain that government legislation of the internet is an unnecessary barrier to innovation and economic growth.

Proponents of a two-tiered model point out that the model already exists because consumers already have a choice of using a slower dial-up internet service or paying a premium price for faster speed over broadband (coaxial cable, DSL or fiber optic services). They also point out that ISPs already prioritize some traffic over other traffic to maintain quality of service (QoS).

This was last updated in June 2018

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In what ways could FCC 'open internet' rules specifically harm service provider innovation?
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Will reversing Net Neutrality will really benefit consumers using existing laws? How feasible will that be?
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