Years of discussion on the right to have a free and open Internet have not yet solved the matter, and the issue is still a subject of heated debate for stakeholders: users, telecommunications companies and governments. The discussion revolves not only around the ability of government to control information and services that travel on the Net, but also on the possibility of telecommunications providers to decide which content to prioritize.
Much has been written on the argument, but where do we currently stand? This article will highlight recent proposals and statements by government officials that have brought the subject back to light and the different stances that European countries and the U.S. are taking on the subject.
The Basis of the Argument
The fundamental issue in the network neutrality debate is the principle of open access to the net and the possibility by broadband traffic providers to ease or slow access by users to information, applications, sites and platform as they please, favoring, most likely, higher paying customers.
Those who argue pro and against network neutrality bring to the table compelling reasons in favor of their argument.
Network neutrality advocates believe that whenever an Internet Service Provider (ISP) treats some broadband traffic or some network users differently, it is going against basic principles that have governed the Internet so far, including free access to information by all. They are concerned that this form of discrimination could eventually make the Internet less valuable to end users.
Pro network neutrality are not only many users but also most renowned Internet companies like Amazon, eBay and Vonage and many more, worried that suddenly broadband providers will have the power to decide which competing application to favor. ISPs should not control what data or how fast content arrives to users, and definitely should not be concerned about what content is transmitted (as long as it is lawful), but only that it is transmitted properly. Such a power for telecoms providers would stifle competition and slow the pace of broadband deployment that was designed to empower consumers.
Many advocates for this retained freedom are also in the academic world. Lawrence Lessig, an American academic and political activist, for instance, is a supporter of the network neutrality movement. He has asked Congress to defend Michael Powell’s four Internet freedoms (i.e., freedom to access content, to use applications, to attach personal devices, to obtain service plan information), believing openness will trigger a new wave of innovation.
Tim Wu, an American academic professor at Columbia Law School, whose paper Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination explores a non-discrimination regime, and self- or non-regulation approach to preserving network neutrality, is devoted to keeping the openness of the Internet and conveys that network service providers should not be allowed to deny people access to web resources or prioritize certain content. Wu has also pressed FCC for network neutrality throughout wireless computing and insists telecom carriers should carry content without discrimination.
Even U.S. politicians have come forward to express concern over net neutrality. President Obama, for example, says he is unequivocally committed to net neutrality, and would be opposed to any Federal Communications plan that creates a so-called Internet “fast-lane.”
It is no surprise, instead, that many telecom providers are continuing the debate for less neutrality and more control. With the Internet becoming more data-intensive and fitting for new technologies (e.g., VoIP, IPTV, Wi-Fi, power-line communication) and suiting ongoing demands for modern audio and video applications on the Internet, which are increasing bandwidth requirements, telecom carriers believe they have a right to decide what is transmitted on their networks and at what price too. Therefore, they want to be allowed to favor their own content and charge extra fees to give others the VIP treatment; In addition, they want to be able to deny those who cannot afford the high-class service.
In general, cable companies want to end strict net neutrality and are against treating all data on the Internet equally; being for-profit companies, they believe in their right to charge different fees according to services provided and slow down any sites that will not pay up. In other words, cable carriers want to charge Internet content companies, such as Google and Netflix, for faster and better Internet service. Those that pay will be guaranteed their content reaches end users ahead of those who do not pay. Higher costs are justified by the need of frequently upgrading the infrastructure and having to meet the increasing demand of speed and bandwidth due to the growth in audio and HD video content sharing.
Network providers could favor some clients and give them higher speed networks while degrading the service of specific content providers. This matter would potentially have a major impact not only on individual Internet users but also on online companies, especially smaller businesses that rely on the open Internet to launch their products and be able to reveal their goods, applications and services to customers. This, of course, requires all data on the Internet to be treated equally and broadband carriers to route all traffic in a neutral manner, without blocking, speeding up, or slowing down particular applications or content.
People want to preserve the Internet as is with no government regulation or any legal intervention that would allow network operators to dictate what people can do online. Consequently, this is how the whole debate started and progressed; it has grown as a major topic of discussion with regard to the theoretical framework set forth by the Federal Communications Commission that has increased oversight of this area.
FCC’s Proposal and Reactions
The FCC’s stand on the subject of network neutrality was clear. In December 2010, the commission had issued the Open Internet order to establish three basic rules for ISPs to follow:
- Transparency of the network management practices, performance and terms of service
- No blocking of lawful content, applications and services
No unreasonable discrimination when transmitting lawful traffic
The FCC was protecting net neutrality, in the beginning at least.
Chairman Tom Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal to federal court about a new open Internet framework is now challenging the concept. His set of rules for an online fast lane has been criticized. In fact, a number of complaints have come forward to say that it would undermine the goal of net neutrality; an “overwhelming surge” in commenters providing feedback, mostly criticisms, to the FCC’s online comment filing system about its recent proposal show how touchy the subject is. The proposal is still in line with the net neutrality stance of the FCC, but for the first time, possibly introduces different rules between “wholesale” and “retail” transactions, which would be regulated in lighter ways.
Alongside end users, Internet activists and many U.S. politicians believe in a free and open Internet with no arbitrary fees or slow lanes for sites that cannot pay for technology that serves their interests. Those that support net neutrality are deeply concerned about FCC’s controversial net neutrality proposal and show concern on where the Internet is going. It is also becoming an economic problem, and this probably explains the recent interventions of higher political figures, including President Obama, in the debate.
The President released an official statement affirming, “An open Internet is essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life. By lowering the cost of launching a new idea, igniting new political movements, and bringing communities closer together, it has been one of the most significant democratizing influences the world has ever known.” The President urges the FCC not to “allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas […] and implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality.”
On the other side of the argument stands Michael Powell, a former chairperson of FCC (2001–05), who is the current president of the lobbyist trade group the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA). He has contributed numerous editorials (in the National Journal and other media sources) and provided opinion pieces in opposition to net neutrality calling for ISPs to have pay-to-play fast lanes, for the sake of Internet availability. Michael Powell argues that net neutrality impairs rather than helps advancement in technology. He believes regulations discourage new competitive entries in the broadband provider world, favor larger regulated companies, discourage investments, and effectively kill innovation.
Net neutrality in Europe
The debate over the issue of net neutrality has gone on for years in the U.S. Is the rest of the world immune? Certainly not. The debate has extended internationally, where the problem has become terrestrial-network centered, especially in Europe. This has turned out to be a problem on a wide scale, influenced by state level politics and, ultimately, regarding consumer choices relating to broadband Internet access services.
Just a few months ago, in the spring of 2014, Europe discussed in its multi-country parliament the new rules and regulations for the managing of the Internet arena. The response of European lawmakers was unmistakable: a strong stance in defense of net neutrality. They voted to limit the ability of telecommunication providers to charge third parties in order to provide faster network access. Providers will be able to limit and slow down services only for a limited time in particular cases to include network security needs or court orders.
Acknowledging that ISPs are still commercial entities with expenses (due to costly network upgrades to provide more advanced services to clients), telecom providers will be allowed to offer specialized services at a premium (to include video services and some cloud business applications) but that can’t be at the disadvantage of other clients; in addition, the services must be provided by ISPs and not third parties.
Now it will be up to each individual European country to receive and enforce the rules, but the European Parliament vote is definitely a step towards the security of the net neutrality principle in Europe.
Conceivably, the viewpoint of Jon Peha from Carnegie Mellon University in his paper “The Benefits and Risks of Mandating Network Neutrality, and the Quest for a Balanced Policy” could clear up the issue on hand and be a way out of the debate, as it proposes a balanced approach to the concerns of those who are pro and against net neutrality. “Success depends on moving the debate from vague principles to specific details about what practical forms of discrimination should and should not be allowed, and where one can prohibit the harmful without prohibiting the beneficial, ” stated Peha back in 2006. The question may not be who ought to pay for certain Internet services, but rather, more importantly, work out the rights and freedoms consumers and carriers deserve.
With Obama having spoken last month demanding the FCC to keep the Internet free & open, one may question if the FCC will listen and consider reclassifying broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service in order to preserve net neutrality. It seems that the U.S. president’s take on the matter will highly influence the debate in the U.S. and may force the government to issue clear regulations to control the perceived power of ISPs.
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Kastrenakes, J. (2014, September 16). FCC received a total of 3.7 million comments on net neutrality. Retrieved from http://www.theverge.com/2014/9/16/6257887/fcc-net-neutrality-3-7-million-comments-made
King, A. (2014, September 10). King Calls on FCC to Adopt Stronger Net Neutrality Rules. Retrieved from http://www.king.senate.gov/newsroom/press-releases/king-calls-on-fcc-to-adopt-stronger-net-neutrality-rules
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Peha, J. M. (2006). The Benefits and Risks of Mandating Network Neutrality, and the Quest for a Balanced Policy. Retrieved from Carnegie Mellon University, at http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=epp
Powell, M. (2014, October 31). Michael Powell: The FCC and competition. Retrieved from http://www.ocregister.com/articles/competition-640516-regulation-new.html
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Wyatt, E. (2014, April 23). F.C.C., in a Shift, Backs Fast Lanes for Web Traffic. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/04/24/technology/fcc-new-net-neutrality-rules.html?_r=0