Net Neutrality: What It Is And Why It's Causing A Big Debate
The open Internet as we know it may be a thing of the past. Or at least that’s the argument offered by proponents of net neutrality.
If you’re a fan of tech blogs you might’ve heard the term, “Net Neutrality” being tossed around. But, what exactly is it? Well, before we answer that, let’s take a step back to examine the Internet.
As it functions today, the Internet is an open network that allows for the transfer of data by various methods, such as hard-wired lines or wireless, that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) facilitate. These service providers are companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast who own lines through which data is transferred. And, through such lines, the public is allowed to share lawful data in an unbiased manner.
So, whether you’re reading articles on NYTimes.com or visiting your friend’s personal blog, the data would be treated without interference from the ISP.
The Internet functions this way because in 1968 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decided that telephone network providers should not be allowed to, “…discriminate against information services.” Since then, however, advancements in technology have significantly changed the Internet.
Within the last decade, consumers online have been introduced to things like BitTorrent, YouTube, and Netflix all of which use a considerable amount of bandwidth. Consequently, the Internet has been congested with an increasing number of users transferring heavy amounts of data. This, in turn, has created a need for a solution to our current system.
We have a finite amount of bandwidth serving an Internet that is quickly outgrowing capacity. For these reasons, the debate on the framework of the Internet has resurfaced.
Who Are The Major Players?
There are two main groups in the argument for the Internet: There are net neutrality purists who favor what the FCC is proposing and there are supporters of a different system as introduced by Google and Verizon.
Organizations like freepress, Consumers Union, and Consumer Federation of America (CFA) hold to the view that the Internet, both wired and wireless (e.g. cellular networks, wireless broadband, etc.), should remain an open platform allowing innovation through an unbiased network. They suggest that the principles of net neutrality be established as official regulations and be enforced by the FCC.
On the opposing side, Google and Verizon have jointly published a proposal that disagrees with the FCC and its supporters. Although Google and Verizon agree on most cases, there were two main points of contention.
What’s On The Table?
Supporters of the FCC argue that broadband companies should invest to develop their infrastructures to remedy the congestion of the Internet instead of trying to create a new system. Their concern is that allowing for broadband providers to alter how data is being transferred may lead to bandwidth throttling or content blocking. And, to avoid any such interference, they propose that the FCC have the means to enforce regulations.
Google and Verizon have said that they accept the basic principles of net neutrality, but disagree with the role that the FCC would play. The two companies suggested that FCC be limited to only enforcing regulations without, “extending or enhancing them.” Concurrently the two companies stated that wireless broadband should be managed differently, not bound to the same regulations as wired, because the wireless broadband technology is at a nascent stage and stressing it now may stunt its growth.
What Does The Law Say?
There have been several court cases as well as policies on the matter at hand. Here are some to keep in mind throughout the discussion of net neutrality:
- COPE Act, HR 5252 and ATOR Act, S 2686 are bills in the House and the Senate, respectively, that prevent the thwarting of content and the denying of access and service for consumers. However, neither of bills explicitly protect against the ISPs favoring sites or creating a tiered system.
- Internet Freedom Perseveration Act of 2009 is an amendment to the Communication Act of 1934 detailing specific policies in tune with those proposed by the supporters of net neutrality.
- FCC v. Brand X is a case regarding the classification of cable modem service providers as either “telecommunications services” or “information services.” In 2005 the Supreme Court voted in favor of giving authority to the FCC to change the classifications of communications services.
Where’s The Debate Now?
The FCC continues with plans of finding a solution to the net neutrality debate, but members of Congress as well as certain broadband providers such as Verizon and AT&T maintain criticism of FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s ideas.
Seeking to reach a consensus rather than go at it alone, the FCC delayed actions on Sept. 1 and instead opted to take comments from the public about the net neutrality principles. The commenting period will end Oct. 25, which means no decisive actions will be taken until after the Nov. 2 elections.
To reach reporter Jacob Chung, click here.
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