Net Neutrality

"A Series of Tubes"

"The Internet is not something that you just dump something on. It’s not a big truck. It is a series of tubes.” —Sen. Ted Stevens

For many Americans, the term “net neutrality” first rose to their level of awareness as a result of the widespread ridicule in the popular media received by remarks made on the Senate floor on June 28, 2006. While addressing a Senate commerce committee discussing pending amendments to a telecommunications bill, Alaskan senator Ted Stevens secured his Internet fame with a rambling, 11-minute speech, highlighted by an unfortunately chosen “series of tubes” analogy.

While Senator Stevens’ remarks (and the numerous Internet memes that they inspired) helped to raise public awareness of the so-called net neutrality debate, they did little to clarify the issue or inform the public about the actual stakes involved.

In simple terms, net neutrality concerns itself with ensuring equal and unrestricted access to all legal content that is available throughout the Internet. In principle, it argues that Internet service providers (ISP) and other gateway services that connect individual users to the wealth of content and services available across the network should not discriminate against or favor certain content over other content.

Common Carriage

Ultimately, the net neutrality issue comes down to the question of how government legislation should or should not regulate the access to and delivery of Internet services. Is the Internet a public utility, like telephone, water, or electricity, where the good of the community entitles all individuals to unrestricted access to these essential services? Or is the Internet more like a commodity or specialized luxury that consumers merely choose to purchase or not?

Historically, the FCC has considered the Internet to be an “information service.” That is, it treats networked information as a product that can be optionally purchased or subscribed to, rather than pure communications between two parties (i.e., more like a magazine or newspaper than a phone call or letter). As such, the FCC (as in the Federal Communications Commission) has, until recently, taken a rather hands-off view of the Internet since it was not strictly regarded as a communication medium.

However, many proponents for net neutrality argue that the ways that people actually use and rely upon access to the Internet are much more analogous to other “telecommunications services” like telephone service. That is, the Internet is merely a conduit through which users connect to a remote service to send and receive communications in the same way that a phone line is a conduit, managed by a phone company, for communication between two callers.

In order to ensure that such party-to-party communications are unrestricted, unfiltered, and uncensored, legislation specifically regulates how telecommunications services operate and imposes limits on what they can and cannot do with the data and information passing through their channels. These services are designated as common carriers—a classification for a person or company that transports goods or people for another party and that is responsible for any possible loss of the goods during transport.

For example, telephone companies have been granted common carrier status. This means that while they are obligated to provide connection services between telephone users (i.e., carry communications), they are restricted from interfering, altering, filtering, or accessing the content of those calls. Similarly, this common carrier status also protects telephone companies from any liability for the communications they transmit (e.g., a telephone call between two individuals planning a crime does not make the telephone company a co-conspirator or accomplice to the crime). As long as a common carrier treats all communications equally, with the same hands-off policy, it is not responsible for the misdoings of its users.

"Common carriage is not a new concept—these rules have a centuries-old history. They have long been applied to facilities central to the public life and economy of our nation, including canal systems, railroads, public highways, and telegraph and telephone networks. In fact, common carrier rules have already been written into the Telecommunications Act of 1996 by Congress; they just need to be applied to broadband Internet communications by the FCC.”—ACLU

By changing its interpretation of Internet services from “informational” to “telecommunications,” the FCC is able to apply many of the same precedents to the Internet as it does to other, more well-established telecommunications services.

The Case FOR Net Neutrality

In 2003, legal scholar Tim Wu helped define and popularize the term net neutrality by building upon the ideals of common carriage. He recognized that the Internet had been built around the notion of free and open access to information. However, unless safeguards were put in place, the gateway services, like ISPs, could potentially use their monopolistic positioning to undermine that goal.

During his presidency, Barack Obama served as a strong proponent of the net neutrality principles. In his recommendations to the FCC, Obama advocated for the creation of new rules and policies designed to ensure that no single company offering access to Internet services can ever act as a gatekeeper that limits, filters, or censors what users can do, say, or see online.

"For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business. That is why a phone call from a customer of one phone company can reliably reach a customer of a different one, and why you will not be penalized solely for calling someone who is using another provider. It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information—whether a phone call, or a packet of data.”—Barack Obama

The president’s recommendations reflected the expectations that the majority of users already hold concerning their Internet access and usage, specifically addressing the following assumptions:

  • No blocking: All legally available content should be accessible by any user. ISPs should not be allowed to selectively restrict access to or censor content requested by its users.
  • No throttling: ISPs should not intentionally slow down or degrade transmissions to certain sites or online services. All content should be treated equally.
  • Increased transparency: FCC rules should apply to stages of Internet transmission and not be limited only to ISPs and their connection to individual users.
  • No paid prioritization: In order to promote the growth of Internet-related businesses of all sizes, all sites and online services should have equal access to the Internet and should compete on a level playing field. No service should be handicapped simply because it cannot afford to pay for better service.
"Imagine if the phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order pizza from Domino’s, because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first. The phone company isn’t allowed to do that, and, for a while, the FCC said broadband providers couldn’t either.”—ACLU

The Case AGAINST Net Neutrality

As an individual user, it is easy to see why net neutrality is probably a good thing to support. However, there are many equally valid arguments to be made against the policy as well. From the perspective of the companies and organizations that design, build, and operate the large, physical infrastructure of the Internet, there are many legitimate reasons why net neutrality principles actually interfere with the ability to provide improved services and/or inhibit further technological innovations or investments.

For example, Christopher Yoo, a legal scholar who specializes in communication and computer and information sciences, offers a number of reasons why net neutrality, as proposed, is misguided and potentially counterproductive.

One of Yoo’s arguments centers on the issue of data discrimination—the notion that an ISP might treat different types of data or data from different sources differently, potentially favoring one type of data while restricting or filtering another type.

“The early Internet was dominated by applications such as email and Web browsing, in which delays of half a second were virtually unnoticeable. These are being replaced by newer applications, such as Internet telephony and streaming video, in which such delays can be catastrophic. One obvious solution would be to give a higher priority to traffic associated with time-sensitive applications. Unfortunately, this is precisely the type of discrimination between applications that network neutrality would condemn.” — Christopher Yoo