A three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit voted on June 14 in favor of enforcing the principle of net neutrality as set out by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the 2010 Open Internet Order. The decision was seen as a big win for network neutrality, and was met with great enthusiasm by its supporters.
The network neutrality debate has become one of the biggest controversies of the Internet. Advocates of the principle believe in an Internet in which all data is treated equally, while detractors argue that broadband access providers should be allowed to manage their network and approve what content is featured.
What is Network Neutrality?
Network neutrality is an Internet principle which argues that Internet service providers (ISPs) should treat all network content and applications equally regardless of source, and without favour or censorship of specific websites or products. The term was coined in 2004 by Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu as an extension of the common carrier law. The idea behind the principle is that a public information network, in this case the Internet, will be of most use if all websites, platforms and content are treated equally. To achieve net neutrality, supporters suggest that governments need to regulate broadband Internet services as a public utility, as with electricity and water supply, and limit the options ISPs provide. Notable supporters of network neutrality include Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter.
Advocates are concerned that if left unregulated, ISPs will develop a two-tier system providing fast and reliable Internet access for the wealthy, and slow and degraded access for everyone else. This concern is partially due to revelations earlier this year that Comcast Corporation had added extra fees for broadband customers who exceeded their data limits, something which will undeniably affect companies like Netflix and YouTube. The ISPs believe they shouldn't have to pay extra costs to support the excessive bandwidth demands of certain content providers, such as streaming services.
Opponents of net neutrality claim that regulating ISPs will stifle investment and innovation and ultimately damage broadband infrastructure. They also argue that the scenario of service providers discriminating against data types has been grossly exaggerated, and that the arguments put forth by supporters are not compelling enough to require regulation due to the significant and growing competition among ISPs. Some of the biggest critics of net neutrality include IBM, Intel and AT&T.
Pros of Net Neutrality
Some of the arguments for net neutrality include:
- It avoids discrimination among users and ensures equal access to all information regardless of factors such as geographical location and socio-economic status
- It permits freedom of choice and free speech by preventing ISPs from blocking or incentivizing specific websites or content over others
- ISPs should only be allowed to provide access the Internet, not what is accessed
- It ensures that ISPs cannot slow or block access to bandwidth-intensive content
- It supports a competitive marketplace and enables every firm regardless of size the opportunity to participate
- It has existed as a core democratizing element of the Internet since its inception
Advocates reason that without net neutrality, companies like Google and Facebook would have been unable to reach the industry leading positions they are in today.
Cons of Net Neutrality
Some of the arguments against net neutrality include:
- Data types have changed, and as result the rules governing how this data is distributed should also change
- Streaming companies like the aforementioned Netflix and YouTube place huge data demands on ISPs, and the costs of these data demands should be paid for by the content provider
- Net neutrality enables users to download illegal content such as pirated software, music and films
- Companies like Google and Skype who offer free communication services through their platforms are effectively stealing customers from the ISPs and telecommunication companies who have spent billions building telecom networks
- Net neutrality stifles innovation as the potential money acquired by ISPs from charging higher fees for bandwidth intensive services can be used to develop advanced fiber networks able to support new Internet services
- Some level of prioritization is necessary to ensure that the Internet supports the best interests of consumers as a whole
What we can see from the above is that while net neutrality supporters are concerned about the fairness of an unregulated Internet and how it will affect user access, net neutrality opposers are worried about the practicality of maintaining the broadband infrastructure as it currently exists.
Net neutrality is a tricky issue to navigate with valid points from both sides of the debate. The only way to successfully transcend the wide range of issues at the center of this problem is through a collaborative effort from both sides, but with so many players involved it seems unlikely that a common ground will be reached anytime soon.
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