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June 02, 2011

A Net Neutrality Primer


Today, over the Internet, we can enjoy watching recent television shows and movies and can listen to music without resorting to piracy or paying cable prices. NBC, ABC, and Fox offer free or low-cost streaming video through Hulu, an online viewing service. Pandora Radio provides free music through personalized online radio stations. Netflix offers unlimited access to thousands of movies viewable through online streaming, all for a low monthly price. Internet service providers (ISPs), however, are claiming that this unlimited access to content provided by these pioneering methods is clogging Internet bandwidth, and right now they are trying to convince policymakers to adjust laws regarding the way we receive information over the Internet. This battle is being fought about in Congress as you read this, and the end result could wind up costing consumers a lot of money.

At stake in this battle is the concept of “net neutrality”—the idea that governments and ISPs should place no boundaries or restrictions on Internet use and content. As policy rapidly shifts regarding the regulation of the Internet, the topic of net neutrality has come into play. Many ISP companies contest the idea that people should have free reign over their Internet content and use, arguing that, since they have built the infrastructure to support the Internet, they can “turn off the pipes” if they like, in an effort to control the market and make more money. To the average Internet user, going down this road could mean paying ISPs according bandwidth use, or even being completely blocked from accessing some services or information.

This conflict has been anticipated for many years. The Century Foundation book, The New Information Infrastructure, published in 1995, heralded this fear. Eli M. Noam, in his essay for the volume, warned that “Privatization may encourage efficiencies of operation. But quality of service may fall if an unconstrained private monopolist seeks to reduce costs without regard to the needs of its captive customers.”

ISPs and mobile network operators (MNOs) are merging quickly, as in the case with T-Mobile and AT&T. Soon we may face the situation where consumers have the choice between only few network providers, or possibly just one, with no competition. A recent case in point is the merger of the broadband Internet service providers MegaPath, Speakeasy, and Covad Communications. If the concept of net neutrality were to be abandoned by Congress, companies such as MegaPath could use the lack of competition to set whatever price or restrictions they wanted on consumers’ Internet usage. As Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said in a statement, “Moreover, such high wireless market concentration raises serious potential net neutrality concerns that should be addressed. The largest mobile network in the nation must not be allowed to limit access to content in a discriminatory manner.” As Blumenthal relates, the smaller the competition and the higher the concentration of the market, the easier it is to regulate the public’s interaction with the World Wide Web.

The FCC has tried to promote an open Internet in the past. However, House Joint Resolution 37 was passed in early April condemning the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules. Without these rules, said Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.), “there would be a major shift in power on the Internet to the broadband providers from the content providers.”

As the battle over Americans’ access to the Internet is waged in Washington, the familiar struggle between regulation versus corporate interests will replay itself. Compromises have been made on both ends in the past, but this time the pace of war is swift, and the outcome uncertain. Adding to the turmoil is the blurring of alliances and the lines of battle, as evidenced by Meredith Attwell Baker’s sudden resignation from the FCC to join Comcast as a well-paid lobbyist, causing some to worry about the separation of corporate interest and public policy. Senator Al Franken said in January of similar occurrences: “When the same company owns the content and the pipes that deliver that content, consumers lose.”


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