Net Neutrality: Preserving the Free Internet
- Sat 29 Dec 2007 at 11:15
In the United States, the Internet has always been a free and neutral frontier. This principle of a free Internet is known as network neutrality ("net neutrality" for short). Net neutrality is the principle that a broadband network's purpose is solely to deliver information on an equal first-come, first-served basis, not to discriminate against certain information or to oppose any restrictions on the information (PC Magazine (external link), par. 1). Net neutrality has been in practice for so long that most people considered it a de facto practice for telecommunication companies ("telco" for short). Those opinions changed when Edward Whitacre, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chairman of SBC Communications, publicly announced that the major Internet companies were "nuts" if they thought that they would continue to carry their traffic for free to consumers (Out-Law.com (external link), par. 3). Whitacre's comment began a technological crusade. Mandating net neutrality by law would ensure and preserve the freedom we currently enjoy on the Internet.
The Story of Net Neutrality
Currently, the Internet is composed of a hierarchy of interconnected networks that deliver information between destinations. The primary backbone networks in the US are owned and managed by various telecommunication companies (Tyson (external link) 2). AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and Quest all have major backbone networks in the US. The telcos serve as the middleman between websites and consumers, with their massive networks simply transmitting information between two locations.
Without net neutrality, the telcos plan on creating a tiered Internet (Geist (external link), par. 19). Currently, the Internet is a level playing field and everyone has equal access and speeds. A tiered Internet would create one or more "fast lanes" in which companies that pay more or strike deals with the telcos would be able to use ("Two-Tiered Internet (external link)," par. 1). Everyone else would have to use the slower tier of the Internet.
A non-neutral Internet was not legally possible in the US until 2005, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) deregulated the broadband market; theoretically giving broadband providers the ability to create a tiered network (Lawrence (external link), par. 4). As mentioned earlier, Whitacre's comment made net neutrality the hot issue in the technology industry (Out-Law.com (external link), par. 3). Proponents to net neutrality formed under SaveTheInternet.com (Free Press Action Fund (external link)), while opponents formed under NetCompetition.org and Hands Off the Internet.
Some Internet Service Providers (ISP) have asserted their ability to block and to slow down websites. In North Carolina, Madison River Communications blocked their customers from using rival web-based phone services, such as Vonage. AOL blocked all emails to their customers mentioning dearaol.com, a website that openly opposed their new pay-to-send email program. In Canada, where the debate over net neutrality also rages on, Telus blocked a website in agreement with the Telecommunications Workers Union (TWU) during a labour dispute with its workers. Also in Canada, Shaw Communications degraded competing telephone services and then charged customers $10 per month to "enhance" them (Free Press Action Fund (external link)).
Congress became involved in the net neutrality debate, in late 2005, when they began ongoing proposals to rewrite the Telecommunications Act of 1996. In March of 2006, Congressmen Joe Barton introduced the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement (COPE) Act of 2006 in the House (1-2). The COPE Act passed in the House, although without the net neutrality provisions (United States (external link)). Later, Senators Olympia Snowe and Byron Dorgan introduced the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2006, which introduced strict net neutrality provisions (1-3) and assigned the regulation responsibility to the FCC (8). This bill has received considerable bipartisan support, including from Senator Ron Wyden who introduced similar legislation earlier that year (Broache (external link), par. 8).
The Reality of the Situation
The major telecommunication companies hold a monopoly status in the broadband market. Most areas in the United States have only one to two broadband providers, giving consumers very few choices for high speed Internet access (Rocketboom (external link)). There are very few major telecommunication companies and they are not in competition with each other. Consequently, they have ban together to fight against net neutrality in organisations such as NetCompetition.org and Hands Off the Internet.
The main reason that the telcos want to create a tiered Internet is to make more money. They do not want to make more money by just charging Internet-based companies more, but by prioritising their own content as well ("Net Neutrality Debate Remains Contentious," par. 7). The telcos can make considerably more money with their own content and websites than they can make with their networks. Being in control of the tiered Internet they want to create, the telcos would be able to make their services considerably faster than their competitors - an unfair advantage. The immense number of choices available on the Internet would suddenly shrink as ISPs block or slow down their competition. As Molly Wood (external link) writes, "the telcos and the cable companies pushing for a tiered Internet will cheerfully turn the Internet into a lopsided disaster of have and have-not traffic that just happens to be filled with perfectly accessible content created by those very same telcos and cable companies" (par. 1). For example, Bright House Networks, the local cable provider for Central Florida, could introduce their own web search engine. In order to get more people to use their search engine, they could slow down popular search engines such as Google and Yahoo! for their customers to a point where they are unusable. Their search engine would not necessarily have to be better, but it could be the only workable choice.