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What Is Net Neutrality?

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  • Originally Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Revised By: Alex Tree
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  • Last Modified Date: 20 March 2014
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Network neutrality, often shortened to "net neutrality," is a business philosophy that supports the idea that all content and services that use a network should be treated the same. Although it relates to any form of network, be it a telephone service or cable television, the term is most often used to talk about Internet services in which all users have the right to send and receive packets of information equally. Under the philosophy of net neutrality, Internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, major online services, and other companies cannot restrict or filter a user's access to services provided by competitors.

Arguments in Support

Supporters of net neutrality suggest that some sort of government legislation is needed to prevent larger commercial websites from dominating the Internet. A government agency similar to the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could be given the power to oversee the basic network to prevent the formation of "robber barons," companies who could choke off competition by controlling key points on the Internet transmission network. If any company can control what content is provided or allow some data to travel faster over the Internet than other data, it is argued, it can suppress opinions it doesn't agree with or prevent smaller competitors from doing business.

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Neutrality levels the playing field for commercial websites, ensuring that a small online bookstore still has the opportunity to receive visitors, even if the websites of massive corporations are more popular. It stops an email provider from blocking email from a rival provider, just like a telephone company can't refuse to handle calls made by a different telco. Net neutrality also does not allow a large company to pay to get its content delivered first or more quickly than a competitor, which would give it an unfair advantage.

Arguments Against

Opponents of network neutrality often include those companies that would be regulated, including cable television companies, major ISPs, and large commercial websites. Some suggest that net neutrality is unnecessary because other network systems are controlled by their largest contributors and are still able to function fairly. If an ISP blocked its customers from accessing certain sites, for example, those consumers could change to a different service provider; blocking content, it could be argued, would make the ISP less competitive.

Other critics argue that more government control over the Internet's basic network could lead to increased censorship and invasion of privacy. In some countries where telecommunication networks are largely controlled by the government, there have been instances of content and services being blocked because they can be used to build opposition against the ruling party. In addition, they argue that companies shouldn't be legally forced to receive or transmit information from competitors or other websites they find objectionable, which has happened in isolated incidents. If all data must be transmitted neutrally, it could be argued, then an ISP might not legally be allowed to block spam email or viruses.

In addition, there are some Internet content providers who's services use much more bandwidth than others. As more and more users access streaming video, audio, and other data-heavy content, it puts the entire network under stress. When these sites are in high demand, it can create a bottleneck, slowing down all data being transmitted to all users. Many ISPs argue that, since these providers are using up a majority of the bandwidth, it's only fair that they pay more for it; charging data-heavy users more in a tiered structure could also allow the ISP to improve the entire network, making everyone's data move faster.

Wired vs. Wireless Internet

Supporters and opponents of net neutrality sometimes differ in their opinion based on whether the network is wired or wireless. A wired network is one that is delivered through wires, such as cable, a digital subscriber line (DSL), telephone lines, or fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP). The wireless Internet, on the other hand, includes WiFi®, WiMAX™, satellite, and mobile broadband. Because of the sharp increase in data usage on mobile devices especially, some groups who usually support net neutrality are more willing to compromise when it comes to wireless Internet services.

There is disagreement about whether the wireless Internet — specifically, that which is accessed on cell phones — is somehow fundamentally different from what most people use in their homes or offices. Mobile Internet providers often argue that, if they cannot enforce some level of control over their networks, they will be forced to raise their prices in order to make enough money to be profitable. They also suggest that there will be less incentive to improve their networks or develop new technologies if they cannot profit from them.

Regulation

As of 2012, there is no law in the United States that enforces network neutrality, although there is an informal arrangement in place to uphold user rights. Japan and some European countries do have Internet access laws based on the principle of net neutrality. In some cases, companies are allowed to block certain services or charge some content providers more, but there are transparency guidelines requiring that those companies tell their customers about any data prioritization, limits on bandwidth, or other methods that the ISP uses to control traffic that moves across the network.

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Discuss this Article

anon167640
Post 31

Does this mean that when a host on a conservative radio show states a fact, a liberal must have the same time and state their own facts? I surmise that the listener does not want to hear ideology that he does not believe in.

anon166087
Post 30

You Americans are obsessed with politics. If it is not left it is right. I am not sure when this turned to politics. Can't people decide on what is right or wrong without political ideology? It is true: America is going down.

anon157418
Post 29

@19: did you meant to say defend at the end of your post?

anon157416
Post 28

@26: My thoughts exactly. This nospamsam guy is a fear monger trying to scare gullible adults. I say adults because no one above the age of 30 would buy his bullcrap that the internet will be full of lies and people will steal top-secret information on a country. He sounds just like a politician.

Nospamsam
Post 27

Well no, what I actually said, you can read below. You seem to think that the internet is free and anyone can use it any way they want to and that they have some right to it, which they do not.

The internet costs each and every person who uses it unless they have a micro chip surgically attached. The hardware and software costs money and internet access costs money. The more money you spend the more you get.

This is not about someone else thinking for you. That is entirely up to you. What the internet can do, however, is shape the way you think based on what you read and what you read may or may not be the truth because anyone can post to the internet any damn thing they want to post.

Lies and propaganda can win or lose an election and can incite people to act or react. That goes both ways for good or for bad. For legal and illegal purposes.

You have no right to the internet. You never did. You have an agreement with your internet provider for a nominal fee and that is about it.

anon155340
Post 26

@No. 21: What you're saying is that we should trust someone else to do the thinking for us; to decide what's "truth" and what's a "lie", instead of reading, thinking, discussing, and learning for ourselves as individuals and as a society?

Either you really can't see the dangerous implications of what you're saying, or you're one of the big-government corporatists trying to keep free societies from communicating with each other, from understanding each other and from learning from each other!

"In an emergency, there has to be somewhere to turn to find out the truth when time is of the essence."

You mean like the Patriot Act, right?

Why don't you take off your mask and reveal yourself as the enemy you are to free societies everywhere?

anon144783
Post 25

"And if my ISP decides to block or charge for sites, I move my business. It's that simple."

To where would you move your business? Do you live in a place where there is a veritable cornucopia of ISPs to choose from? In my town, we have, well, two. I guess that could be considered Free Market competition.

anon144782
Post 24

"We don't need nanny government to tell us what we can or cannot do with our own website."

You're right, we don't. Nor do we need nanny corporations doing the same, which is what will happen if the major ISPs and telcoms gain control over what you can and cannot access.

anon144483
Post 23

When I have to pay .35 cents to reply to an article like this one, I will have all of the cons to thank who will complain about "government insolvent" without actually knowing what in the hell they are actually talking about.

anon138173
Post 22

So, what exactly happened to early internet sites like Excite, Webcrawler, Daily Radar.. etc? Oh, I know - they didn't make any money and went out of business. Are we supposed to stop that from happening?

And if my ISP decides to block or charge for sites, I move my business. It's that simple.

Nospamsam
Post 21

I find it comical that a term like "Net Neutrality" even exists. Lets face it folks the internet is not free or neutral. The more memory you have the more you can do. The faster your internet provider is the faster you can download. The faster your processor is the faster you can obtain data. The better your video card is then better the graphics. You see the trend here? The more you pay, the more you get: simple as that.

The problem is you can buy all the widgets and digits and gadgets you want and none of them can tell you if what you're reading online is a lie or not. Your anti-spyware and your anti-virus are another must have for the avid computer user and they come with a fee. If you don't have them then it is only a matter of time before a virus or hacker destroys everything you have worked for in your system and there is not a damn thing you can do about it once it happens.

That is the problem with an open internet. Anyone can spam you, phish you, dis you, lie to you or any other number of nasty things and then it is up to you to sort through all the bull crap to find out the truth. Anyone can post on the internet and no one takes the lies off. It simply perpetuates falsehoods and those same old dumb e-mails go round and round to forward to 50 of your friends about crap that is as far from the truth as it could be fly around and around the internet because there are no internet police.

Without structure and order the internet will become unreliable. In an emergency, there has to be somewhere to turn to find out the truth when time is of the essence. If a hacker gets access to information that can steal the identities of a continent, then there has to be a way to shut them off so they cannot profit from that information.

Without some mechanism in place, a disaster is just around the corner on the cyber curve ahead.

anon136496
Post 20

I hate to say it as a former verizon employee but I think I'm with the government on this one. when I worked there, VZW would force data features on to customers who didn't need them and restricted access to things that, if i had to pay for the internet, I should be able to view. If the major money hungry companies are for it, I'm against it.

anon136136
Post 19

I would like the government to keep their hands off of my free speech and out of healthy markets. They do nothing but create unnecessary regulation. They are a burden, they tend toward corruption and they increase the cost for everyone. Your jobs FCC, are on the line because we will find you and defend you.

anon136098
Post 18

This is just a way for people to do less work and make more. Amazon and Google are #1 for a reason. They worked very hard and hire the best. If you want people to buy from you, don't let your next door neighbor build your website for you.

anon135923
Post 17

I love the misinformation and possible intentional dispersal of bad information in this comment thread.

There's nothing "liberal" about Net Neutrality. It just means your internet provider is not allowed to mess with what you can reach online, plain and simple as that.

anon131294
Post 16

Blame packet filtering on the bandwidth hogs not the ISP's. Everyone has to remember that there is only so much bandwidth a company can afford and with a few bandwidth hogs on their network it can make it go to its heaes and complaints come in about speed. That's not fun and not fair to normal users. Now if they are blocking sites, that's not cool!

anon129544
Post 15

Net Neutrality is the perfect summation of the liberal philosophy, which is, through control, a regulated "fairness" or leveled playing field - which results in a dystopia because the idea of a utopia cannot be realized. This has has been played out again and again over time in various societies.

The government regulated "leveled playing field" results in shared suffering. Such would be the case for neutrality - more control, less quality, less freedom, resulting in less access due to less competition. Same liberal philosophies, same results.

anon128248
Post 14

The problem with government regulation of the net is that they will not write a simple regulation. No, they will write a convoluted set of regulations that only attorneys can understand and then they will tell us that this was in the law all along.

If this is only about guarantee of bandwidth for small users, then allocate the bandwidth, but leave out all of the legal mumbo jumbo just like in the health care bill that passed under the fence unnoticed.

anon113489
Post 13

Before you know it, we'll be charged for the air that we need to breathe in order to survive. The more air you need in order to live your daily lives the more it will cost you. i.e.: "I'm sorry I can't go outside and play with you today, my family can't afford the extra air charges."

anon106468
Post 12

I don't want the cable company, or Verizon or any company forcing me to pay for package deals and contracts for which websites, blogs, forums, message boards and searching I choose to go into or join. This is exactly what will happen if they take over. Right now we can choose without having to pay extra or be forced to choose which sites are allowed.

anon103252
Post 11

Isn't it odd that the Libs are for net neutrality (for the little guy) but want to abolish the Electoral College?

anon103239
Post 10

"We don't need nanny government to tell us what we can or cannot do with our own website." That's the thing, it's not, nor has it ever been "your" website. You are on their (the government's) network.

It's just like the Interstate Highway System. Should you have the "right" to do whatever you want on the highway? Not when it infringes on my rights to not have an idiot doing whatever they want. Same concept: allowing them to do whatever they want infringes upon my rights to not be screwed by greedy corporations who have already proven on several occasions they can't be trusted.

AT&T was broken up once for unfair business practices, then the government let them reform and they have already begun it again.

anon102119
Post 9

I am very libertarian in my views and I tend to want the government to stay out of my business, but there is a larger problem with Net Neutrality. It involves the concept of a monopoly or in the case of broadband providers, a duopoly.

If there was true competition in the broadband marketplace, I would gladly ask the government to stay out of this. However, in most cases, people have access to one or maybe two broadband providers. If you do not like what your provider is doing, you have little or no choice in alternate providers.

It is for this reason that the FCC needs to regulate the broadband providers, to protect us from the abuses of the corporations. And before you think the existing laws are good enough, just look at the news about Google and Verizon signing a preferential deal. Then look at Comcast suing the FCC over the FCC fining them for actively, purposely manipulating Peer 2 Peer packets. And guess what? Comcast won the lawsuit.

No, the current laws are not good enough.

And who would you rather trust: the corporations (Telecom and Cable companies) who put greed above all else or the FCC, who has usually done a fair job of trying to be reasonable with their rules. Heck, the FCC seems to be more willing to listen to the people than our own congressmen.

anon98303
Post 8

Yes, competition is the most efficient way to conduct business, but one area of net neutrality we are not looking at is the censorship of information by the telecom companies over whom the people have no authority.

When we talk about government, we have to realize that we are the government, and if we discover government censorship, we can change it. Now yes, it might take a whole two years until the next elections, but if a large enough number of citizens start to vehemently voice their opinion change will most likely come quicker than that.

On the other hand, if we have a telecom company doing the same, we have no control over it. All we can do is leave, but in an industry like communications, where there is normally one major provider for a certain area, if you leave you're choosing to go without internet. Also the government can already shut down internet sites if it so pleases, so this does not give the government any more power.

All this does is let the government set up a not for profit infrastructure where each and every internet site is able to exist.

anon93988
Post 7

I can understand where the enforcement of net neutrality may seem to be an attractive prospect, but it will be the FCC which is enforcing it. If you believe that the government will do what is ethically correct - go for it. But, if you believe that the web, as we know it, has survived this long, with freedom for us all - as far as we know - without government interference, then this probably isn't going to be in our best interests.

I suspect the very motives for the government wanting to get involved.

anon92409
Post 6

Of course my first impression is to be against any government intervention. The problem is the large ISPs, if given free, unbridled rein will take advantage of the consumer.

When I worked in the telecom industry after the at&t breakup, I learned that at&t still collected millions of dollars on rental phones as far back as the 50's when rentals were the only way to get a phone. They never told the consumer they could simply buy a phone and end the rental fees on their bills.

Occasionally, government must step in and curb big business from unfair practices. I loathe big government monitoring and meddling, but I also hate being taken advantage of or treated unfairly by big business. Educate me. Why should I not want the FCC to implement a 'net neutrality' policy?

anon85136
Post 4

We don't need more government involvement with our lives. The internet is not broken, please don't try to fix it. A concerned American citizen from the state of Nebraska, the state that is watching Sen. Nelson fade away.

anon83034
Post 3

anon76250, "can't compete" is the point. You are correct that if you don't compete effectively, you should lose. Without net neutrality we run into problems were businesses never even have the chance to compete. Such survival of the fittest only benefits society in aggregate if the playing field is level. If "fittest" means controller of the gateway, we all lose.

anon80862
Post 2

Most big sites on the internet are like that because they were more efficient and it's about the customers not the business. If you want your site to get more people then you have to be more innovative.

anon76250
Post 1

Survival of the fittest is honestly the best way to conduct business, if you can't compete than defeat should be in your future. We don't need nanny government to tell us what we can or cannot do with our own website.

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