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

Pros 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

and services.

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

communications policies.

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

market place.

Other networks function properly

without anyone being in charge of them.

Regulation will help curb illegal activity

and fraud.

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

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

access technologies.

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?

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