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Network Neutrality

Diane checks the internet. Her home page is Google, which is her favorite search engine. Today however, Diane's system can't connect to google.com. So she tries her next favorite search engine, MSN. msn.com seems to be working, but it is very slow. Diane has a DSL connection through her local phone company, Edison Telephone. Thinking there is a problem, she calls Edison Telephone's tech support. They inform her that they have partnered with Yahoo as part of their "preferred portal program" so her connection to Yahoo should be twice as fast as it used to be. However, she will no longer be able to access Google, and other search engines such as msn.com and askjeeves.com will only be offered at a reduced speed. When Diane asks why this is, she is offered a $10 per month upgrade to Edison Telephone's "universal" system which gives her full-speed access to any site on the web. As a bonus she can also stream podcasts to her iPod at high speed. When Diane points out that she was already able to stream audio just fine, they inform her that Apple has not paid for high speed access, so podcasts may skip or have lower quality.

Infuriated, Diane cancels her service and chooses to switch to another provider. Ooops! There is only one telephone company in her area, and the cable internet service provider also has a "preferred portal program" that does the same exact thing.

Does this sound silly? Until recently, this scenario was not possible. Telephone companies, internet service providers (ISPs), and transportation companies were defined as common carriers under U.S. law, which means that they must be neutral to whatever they carry. That means that UPS can't prioritize packages sent by large companies or delay delivery to packages to smaller companies or individuals. It means that telephone companies can't send higher-quality audio to customers who also use their cell-phone service. And internet service providers can't insert ads into competitor's web pages or slow-down data to competitor's customers.

Now this is all at risk. DSL service providers are no longer "common carriers" and the FCC rules on network neutrality allow loopholes that the telecommunications companies want to exploit. No one ever intended companies to start breaking the internet into pieces. Be aware that this only affects the U.S. - everyone else will have free and clear internet access.

What is Network Neutrality?

Network Neutrality is the basic idea that anyone carrying network traffic must treat all the data the same. They should not filter, prioritize, or alter the content in ways that are not desired by the customer.

Network neutrality is fairly simple, but it has become a highly politicized issue since the telecoms have an opportunity to charge customers more for less. Fake grassroots efforts have been confusing the issue, making it difficult to see what network neutrality is, and what it is not.

What isnít Network Neutrality?

This is very important because there is significant misinformation on Network Neutrality.

  1. Network Neutrality is not new:

    The entire world currently has a neutral system in place today. The telecommunications companies want to change to a non-neutral system.

  2. Network Neutrality is not price fixing:

    Various articles have claimed that network neutrality involves fixing prices. This is not true.

  3. Network Neutrality is not regulation:

    Network Neutrality currently exists, and doesn't require any special bodies to enforce, measure, or regulate it. There is no organization that checks to make sure there aren't ads in your phone calls, or that call quality is the same. It just isn't necessary.

  4. Network Neutrality has nothing to do with competition:

    Some phony grassroots organizations claim that the issue is neutrality -vs- competition. Competition is not affected by neutrality.

  5. Network Neutrality is not about a "tiered" network:

    Networks are already tiered. Google, Microsoft, Yahoo, etc. each pay more for their internet access than any individual person does.  They have special high-speed connections because they they serve so many more customers.

  6. Neutrality is not evil just because Microsoft supports it:

    Some articles point out specifically the Microsoft supports network neutrality as a way to draw people to emotionally conclude that neutrality is evil. Any company or individual that has a site on the internet is threatened if net neutrality is taken away.

  7. Network Neutrality has nothing to do with taxation:

    One organization hints that network neutrality involves some sort of taxation, which is not true.

Who do I trust?

Telecommunications companies do not want network neutrality. Neither do those companies that produce the telecom hardware. Both these groups stand to gain from eliminating network neutrality. On the other side of the issue is everyone else: consumers and corporations big and small. Anyone who has a web site wants the internet to remain neutral. The inventor of the world wide web, Professor Tim Burners-Lee, strongly supports network neutrality as summarized in this CNET news article.

Be aware that there are some organizations that try to get people to write to their representatives against net neutrality. They are creating fake grassroots campaigns to confuse people. But it is easy to see who is involved by looking at their list of supporters which includes every major telecom company in the United States. The site even sports a big "Say no to government regulation" slogan, even though network neutrality is not regulation. Another such organization is netcompetition.org which is run by a telecom lobbying group who states their mission is to "...exploit emerging opportunities..."

For accurate information, try some of the links below.

References

Examples

Network neutrality violations are happening today. For example, NextGenTel in Norway limited the bandwidth of the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation.

Confusion in the press

Even the press is very confused on network neutrality. Here are some examples of articles that fall for some of these myths:

Chicago Sun-Times

The Chicago Sun Times article on network neutrality makes some of the mistakes cited above. They believe that network neutrality might be a good thing, but that we don't want government regulation unless absolutely necessary. They want to rely on the free market and wait until there are some real violations before imposing government regulation. They don't want to stifle the telecom companies ability to provide higher speed access.

Their reasoning is logical, but the authors are misinformed. They have fallen for some of the network neutrality myths listed above.

  1. The mistaken belief that network neutrality is new and that network neutrality is a form of government regulation.
    "...but we don't think the government should get involved until there is clear evidence that involvement is needed..."
    The authors want to wait until network neutrality violations happen to confirm that the market cannot fix them before imposing the law. This would make sense except that we previously had network neutrality, and it was removed under pressure from telecoms who have publically announced plans for non-neutral features. The groundwork is already set, and violations have begun.
  2. The mistaken belief that competition exists and can solve the problem.
    "...the market itself under existing laws, will provide the best solution to the problem..."
    How many high-speed internet providers exist in most areas? Usually there are two: The local telecom company, and the local cable TV provider. Since both are arguing against network neutrality, there are no alternatives for people to switch to. Since there is no free market, the free market cannot solve the problem.
  3. The mistaken belief that network neutrality is related to paying for higher speed access.
    "...If some companies, such as a seller of downloadable movies, want to pay an Internet provider more to guarantee speedier delivery, shouldn't that be allowed?"
    It certainly should, and this is allowable under network neutrality. But telecom companies want to eliminate network neutrality because they are not speeding-up internet movies, but slowing down everything else, then requiring customers to pay to speed them back up. The situation is similar to telecoms selling a service that blocks telephone solicitors, then selling the ability to get around those blocks back to the telecom solicitors.)