What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality lawUPDATE: The FCC and Gov. are moving forward with net neutrality laws.

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Net Neutrality: What is it and how does it affect Internet access in the United States?

From its inception, the promise of the Internet has been parity. It’s a fundamentally democratic platform that doesn’t discriminate between digital packets of information. And because of that parity, you can access the website of a tiny independent bookstore just as quickly as you can access Amazon.com. The Internet does not transmit MSNBC content any more efficiently than it relays content from Fox News.

The doctrine behind this digital equality is called “net neutrality.” Simply put, it means that the connectivity infrastructure – servers, Internet service providers (ISPs) and transmission lines — that make up the Internet’s backbone must provide the same level of connectivity to all its users.

The principle of Internet equality is considered by most U.S. citizens to be a fundamental “right,” in much the same way that free speech is a fundamental American “right.” Yet, net neutrality is not enforced by law, and in September, 2010 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) – the body charged with overseeing Internet commerce in the United States – abruptly called off talks in which the goal was to get the big Internet companies to sign off on a set of rules.

Why Do Interet Neutrality Proponents Want Formal Laws Governing Internet Traffic?

Proponents of “cyberspace connectivity equality rules” maintain that unless the unwritten law is codified into a federal law or regulation, the big telecom companies who provide Internet connectivity will try to impose tiered service models on Internet users, similar to those used by wireless companies in the early days of cell phones, that will create artificial scarcity in the pipeline as a way to weed out competition, ultimately ensuring their monopolistic control of the Internet.

Why Opponents To Net Neutrality Rules Think A Formal Law Is Useless

Critics of net neutrality argue that there’s no manipulation going on: Pipeline capacity is limited, and that unless some kind of incentive is offered to the companies that are spending billions upon billions of dollars to extend broadband’s reach and improve its speed, those companies may decide that investment is not worth it and stop spending. When, in 2009, Arizona Senator John McCain introduced legislation designed to prevent the FCC from imposing its rules on ISPs, he stated that by stifling innovation, net neutrality would slow the economic recovery, depressing a weak job market even further.

Comcast and Net Neutrality

With around 16 million users, the Comcast corporation is the largest provider of home Internet services in the United States, as well as the largest cable TV operator and the third-largest telephone provider.

Comcast: “We’re Slowing Down Traffic to BitTorrent Sites.”

In October 2008, Comcast updated its terms of service to reflect what had long been rumored to be an unofficial company policy: customers who used an excessive amount of bandwidth – defined by Comcast in August 2008 as 250 GB or more per month – were subject to termination. To combat this excessive use, Comcast had been decelerating downloads through BitTorrent services.

Comcast’s behavior was only partly a blow struck on behalf of intellectual copyright holders. Mostly, Comcast had imposed its BitTorrent embargo because the downloads were slowing their pipeline traffic to a crawl.

In effect, Comcast’s decision to slow down BitTorrent transmissions was an act that placed a higher priority on non-BitTorrent content than it placed on BitTorrent content. In other words, it violated the basic tenet of net neutrality.

Nonprofits and FCC to Comcast: “You Really Shouldn’t Do That. It’s A Slippery Slope.”

Nonprofit Internet watchdog groups like Open Internet Coalition quickly got into the fray. So did the FCC, which reprimanded the cable-broadcasting giant and instituted proceedings against the company.

Then, as now, however, adherence to net neutrality rules is purely voluntary since a set of rules is nowhere codified or even formalized as part of a standard of professional conduct. Comcast sued the FCC, and in March, 2010 a federal appeals court granted Comcast’s petition for review, vacating the FCC’s 2007 order.

Was this a blow against net neutrality? Probably not: the court decision did not address the concept itself, but focused on the FCC’s legal authority to enforce it. The FCC had long assumed that Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act gave it jurisdiction in this area, but the court did not agree.

Since the court’s ruling, the FCC has continued to advocate strongly for net neutrality while it searches for a way to establish jurisdiction over broadband services. FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, maintains that the FCC’s jurisdiction can be re-established through Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Meanwhile the FCC continues to meet with ISP lobbyists and representatives from companies like Google, Skype and Facebook to hammer together a consensus on how the agency should regulate broadband Internet service and where net neutrality fits into the picture.

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