Few issues related to business use of the Internet have spurred as much
heated debate as Net Neutrality. At the heart of the Net Neutrality debate is
the idea that Internet access providers should not discriminate with regard
to what applications an individual can use or interact with over the Internet.
Advocates of Net Neutrality contend that individual freedom to use of the
Internet extends to the content uploads or downloads. They also believe that
individuals acquiring services from Internet access providers should be able
to use the applications and devices of their choice, and be allowed to interact
with the content of their choice anywhere on the Internet.
The concept of Net Neutrality is grounded in traditional “common
carriage” concepts. Because carriers of goods, people, and information can
be considered common carriers, common carriage concepts have been
applied to trains, planes, buses, and telephone companies. Common carriage
principles embody the ideal that the efficient movement of goods and
information is essential to our economy, nation, and culture, and therefore
carriers must not discriminate against or favor particular individuals or
If common carriers are truly public goods, it can be argued that these
modes of conveyance should not discriminate with regard to what they carry
or where they carry it. This also means that the carrier should not be held
liable for carrying things that may be harmful. For example, if a terrorist
uses a subway to travel to the site of a terrorist act, the subway cannot be
sued for being complicit in terrorism.
Telecommunication carriers have been classified as common carriers for
more than 100 years, dating back to the early days of the telegraph. Nearly
half a century has passed since the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC) determined that the telephone network should be an open platform
over which computer networks can be created. As a result of the
Carterphone case, the FCC resolved that individuals had the right to attach
devices of their choosing to the telephone network [BOSW12]. This opened
the door for data communication devices such as fax machines and modems
to be attached to telephone lines, thereby making it possible to create
computer networks over the telephone network. In essence, court and
regulatory rulings in the U.S. created an environment that fostered the idea
that computer networks could be constructed to go anywhere the telephone
network could take them using devices that could carry just about any type
of content. The decisions made by courts and regulatory agencies that
opened the door for telephone networks to carry data generated by
computers were largely consistent with traditional common carriage
concepts. However, the emergence of the World Wide Web and the
increased popularity of broadband access that it generated added a new
dimension to the Net Neutrality debate.
Because the Internet began its life as a computer network superimposed
on national telephone network, Internet service providers (ISP) have not
been subject to state or local telecommunications regulations. Instead, ISPs
fall under the jurisdiction of the FCC which has traditionally viewed ISPs in
the same way that it viewed telegraph and telephone service providers, that
is, as carriers of information that is critical to our nation and society.
When the Internet evolved into a broadband network, it became a very
different type of telecommunications network than the telephone or
telegraph network. This transition to broadband raised doubts about whether
the Internet could continue to claim common carrier status. Net Neutrality
advocates argued that broadband cable and DSL modems were nothing
more than a new class of devices that individuals had the right to attach the
telephone network. The FCC, however, was swayed by counter arguments
and ruled that ISPs were information services that did not have to be shared
and therefore would no longer be considered to be common carriers.
Because common carriers are not liable for damage caused by what
they carry, the issue of the Internet as common carrier is central to the Net
Neutrality issue. If a liability waiver cannot be extended to the broadband
Internet and ISPs, is it possible for the Internet to continue in the form to
which we are accustomed? If the Internet is not a public good, how should it
be regulated and how much regulation is needed?
Strong arguments can be made both for and against Net Neutrality.
Some of the more common arguments on both sides of the issue are
summarized in Table C4.1. For example, Net Neutrality proponents claim
that Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has been one of the
nation’s most important drivers of economic innovation during the last two
decades. They also claim that the government’s “hands off” stance has
enabled the Internet to be used to encourage democratic participation and to
promote free speech. They argue that our right to use any type of
equipment, content, application or service without interference from the
network provider or government should be protected.
Some Net Neutrality advocates think that legislation is needed to ensure
the continuation of the Internet in its traditional “anything-goes” form. They
contend that regulation is needed to ensure that average citizens are not
abused by monopolistic and greedy corporations or that Net Neutrality
legislation is needed to help control fraud and illegal activity. Others counter
that regulation will lead to censorship and the stifling of free speech.
Table C5.1 Net Neutrality Pros and Cons
NN provides non-discriminatory access. Tiered access could make for a better
Regulation is needed to ensure that
Internet will have guaranteed access to
whatever they want to read, listen to, or
watch online; without regulation, large
telecom companies could block or censor
things they don’t like without
Do we really need more legislation?
There are numerous laws regulating
Internet content and use and NN
legislation is unnecessary.
Innovation and creativity are the heart
of Net Neutrality; this gives users more
Regulation could stifle innovation and
retard the evolution of Internet products
Net Neutrality provides a competitive
marketplace; NN regulation is needed to
ensure that it stays this way.
Regulation is a futile exercise; none of
the service providers would sabotage
rivals by blocking their content or
degrading network performance.
NN is consistent with historical
NN is a new concept that has no history
or historical precedence.
Everyone pays for their Internet
connection so the costs of Internet
infrastructure improvements are shared
among users and providers.
Content providers responsible for
generating significant Internet traffic are
getting a free ride.
Government control of the Internet will
ensure there is no monopoly and ensure
that big Web sites will not dominate the
Other networks function properly
without anyone being in charge of them.
Regulation will help curb illegal activity
Regulation would result in increased
censorship and invasion of privacy.
The companies who provide the circuits for the public Internet have
been spending a lot of money trying to convince Congress and the FCC to
limit Net Neutrality. AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon would
like to have the ability to charge Web sites for using their circuits based on
the volume of traffic that the Web sites generate [SAVE12]. These carriers
argue that content providers, such as Google, who are responsible for huge
volumes of Internet traffic, should be willing to pay more for using carrier
circuits. After all, many content providers are making billions in profit each
year for using their circuits without being asked to contribute to the
maintenance and advancement of the Internet’s infrastructure.
The carriers advocate the creation of a tiered tariff structure for content
providers with those that generate the most traffic paying the highest tariffs.
In such a scheme, Google would pay extra to ensure fast transmission
speeds while less popular content providers would pay less, or nothing at all.
Carriers say that this arrangement would be similar to the extra tariffs that
trucking companies pay to use interstate highways and other roadways.
Because their big trucks cause more wear and tear on the roads, trucking
companies are required by law to pay extra tariffs to help government
agencies cover the costs associated with public highway maintenance.
The suggestion that heavy users should pay more for heavy usage of
the Internet does not sit well with those who feel that Net Neutrality should
be maintained. Net Neutrality advocates argue that the carriers want to get
rid of Net Neutrality in order to put themselves in positions where they could
serve as Internet gatekeepers. The carriers, they claim, want to be able to
control which Websites and applications can go fast, which go slow … or
can’t be accessed at all. They also argue that the infrastructure providers
want to set themselves up to be able to discriminate in favor of their own
applications, content and services and to have the ability to slow down or
block competitors’ services. Small businesses and start-ups, they argue, will
never have a chance to make it big or strike it rich if the carriers are
successful in limiting Net Neutrality.
Not surprisingly, many content providers have lined up in opposition to
legislation to limit Net Neutrality. Carrier arguments for a tiered tariff
system, however, have been convincing to some content providers, including
Google [WHIT10]. Many well-known heavy hitters, including Amazon, eBay,
Intel, Microsoft, Facebook and Yahoo are supporters, of Net Neutrality.
Other groups that favor Net Neutrality include the ALCU, the American Library Association, the Christian Coalition for America, and Moveon.org.
Editorial boards at some of the nation’s major newspaper including the New
York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle
Times, and the Christian Science Monitor have also urged the FCC and
Congress to protect Net Neutrality [TIME10].
There is compelling evidence for the notion that Net neutrality has been
a guiding force that has helped the Internet evolve to the point it is today.
The Internet has grown at a phenomenal pace since its being opened for
commercial activity in the early 1990′s, and one wonders if this growth
would have taken place in the absence of the protections and freedoms that
Net Neutrality has provided. Innovative products from companies such as
Google, eBay, and YouTube, may not have come into being without Net
Neutrality. Their success has inspired start-ups and online stores to take
risks with the hopes that they too will have the same chance to make it big.
The cable providers who have invested in the infrastructure that
underlies the Internet also make a good case for the tiered access that they
favor. It is difficult to refute their claims that the large content providers can
afford to pay higher fees for Internet access or that heavy traffic generators
should be asked to contribute more toward financing network improvements
that will benefit both them and the average Web user.
In the U.S., Net Neutrality debates can easily get sidetracked by First
Amendment rights to free speech and other individual rights issues. U.S
citizens have gotten some satisfaction from the fact that Net neutrality has
promoted access to the Web and the assurance its content will not be
blocked, slowed down, or sped up depending who owns the circuits and
Given the volume of Web space that the Net Neutrality debate has
generated, it is quite clear that the arguments are far from over. While
Congress may continue to sidestep the issue, it seems inevitable that it, the
FCC, and the federal courts, will be forced to confront Net Neutrality. No
matter what is decided, the debate is likely to continue.
Discussion Points 1. This case focuses on the Net Neutrality debate in the United States. Do
some Internet research on international views of Net Neutrality and summarize how views of this issue differ within and across other countries.
3. The mobile Web has added a new dimension to the Net Neutrality debate. If mobile users can access the Internet through their smartphones, should Net Neutrality concepts be extended to include cellular networks and mobile service providers?
4. Do some research related to how Net Neutrality has contributed to Internet commerce and online economies. Is network neutrality essential for the continued expansion of online commerce? Why or why not? Justify your answer.
5. Do you think that Net Neutrality must be maintained to protect freedom of speech and/or preserve democracy? Why or why not?