Do you support the view that all content flowing through the Internet should be treated equally?
If yes, you are certainly familiar with the ongoing net neutrality debate in the United States. For those that have never heard of it, I recommend to have a butcher’s at this primer written by Rich Greenfield. You see, the issue goes back to as early as 1996, but appears to have attracted a huge medial attention in the last couple of months. Why?
That is what I asked myself and went through some reads, the most of which available online. So, I would like to share the information I gained with you.
It appears that net neutrality has a twofold characteristic: it is about quantity and quality. The qualitative aspect would regard the content and the quantitative – the service availability in terms of speed, performance and pricing.
In the US, net neutrality is commonly defined as “the notion that broadband Internet service providers should not be allowed to show preferences to certain providers of content or types of content by supplying them with faster service” (Ashley Packard, Digital Media Law, 67). This definition covers rather the qualitative aspects and corresponds to the common standards established in the European Union. Europe is known to have put much effort in regulating both, the quantitative and the qualitative aspect. These are the standards I grew up with, so, initially I could not really figure out the controversy so arising.
Well, the key might lie in that in the 1990s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) began to treat broadband Internet service providers (ISP) favourably in comparison to, say, common carriers. In the result, such ISP have been under no obligation to share their conduits with competitors and have thus benefited from the lack of quantitative regulation. The US Supreme Court’s ruling in Brand X is considered to have cemented that state of affairs.
Besides, ISP had begun to also determine whether or not to convey certain content through their networks. They had, so to say, entered the area of the qualitative net neutrality. Having gained certain advantages by virtue of the missing quantitative regulation, they might have been willing to shape their service also in qualitative terms.
That seems to have been the point where the ball got really rolling. And when customers complained that Comcast secretly blocked their access to BitTorrent, the FCC decided to act and sanctioned Comcast. FCC grounded its order in the Internet Policy Statement it had issued already in 2005 in order to guarantee consumers unfettered access to all legal Web content, applications, and services. Comcast argued FCC would not have authority to regulate an ISP’s network management practices and eventually won before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit.
However, FCC did not give up and adopted new rules thereby claiming “an important step to preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation, investment, job creation, economic growth, competition, and free expression.” How dou you think did the ISP community perceive this act? Well, not necessarily in the affirmative. This time it was Verizon that undertook to challenge the newly issued rules, thereby applying the successful recipe of the overstepped authority.
Having read that far, what do you think? What might be ISPs arguments to oppose net neutrality? I doubt they would claim changes merely in quantitative terms. Would the assumption that ISP attempt to limit the freedom and openness of the Internet be permissible? I could not figure it out why they should do so. Otherwise Verizon seems very reluctant to provide for cogent reasons why they oppose net neutrality.
For the time being and in contrast to the development in the US, the European Union Commission has managed to defend the concept of net neutrality. They have recognized that there is one Internet and that it should remain open and interconnected regardless of the technologies and services users rely on to access it.
While I understand that quantitative shaping network management might even be necessary, I would never accept a qualitative one. An ISP would then be in charge as to what content I would access. Such an effect would be even fortified by the fact that the market is likely to fail curing discrepancies so arising. You remember – many ISP are not obliged to share their networks with competitors. I could not just walk away from my ISP and sign with another.
Therefore I care for net neutrality. Actually, anyone using the Internet must care about net neutrality.
Otherwise there is a fair chance that we cede ground to persons like Mr Neil Berkett, the CEO of Virgin Media and they make the decisions on our behalf. And, believe me, that will not be necessarily to users’ benefit. Why? I guess that if you ask them, he will say “this net neutrality thing is a load of b****cks!”
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