What is Net Neutrality?

A common description of Net Neutrality goes something like this one from Google:

"Fundamentally, net neutrality is about equal access to the Internet. The broadband carriers should not be permitted to use their market power to discriminate against competing services or content. Just as telephone companies are not permitted to tell consumers who they can call or what they can say, broadband carriers should not be allowed to use their market power to control activity online. Today, the neutrality of the Internet is at stake as the broadband carriers want Congress's permission to determine what content gets to you first and fastest. Put simply, this would fundamentally alter the openness of the Internet."

What follows is my attempt at assembling a more detailed and concrete description of the issue. This article may be expanded over time. So you may want to check back on occasion.

Net Neutrality refers to neutral treatment of data traffic. This is easy to do because, to a digital network, data is just a sequences of bits. And bits are bits. A good analogy is the electric grid. It sends electrons here and there. It doesn't matter whether the electricity will be used to power a television or a toaster. All electrons are the same as all bits of data are the same.

The issue of Net Neutrality is not a technical one; it is about economic power and politics. Communications networks require large investment and rely on access to public rights-of-way, franchise agreements, and legislation that creates barriers-to-entry to would-be competitors, resulting in monopoly power, or nearly so. In a non-competitive (monopolistic) environment with little or no regulation, a service provider can engage in business practices that are unfair to competitors and unfair to customers. Here are some practices commonly used:

  • Lack of Transparency – Failure to clearly state policies of the network (service details, quality of service, extra fees, restrictions, etc.). Many important details of service are too technical for most people, and go unasked and unmentioned, but subsequently used against the customer. (Think of the complexity of health insurance coverage details.)
  • Price/Margin Squeeze – Slow down the requests of competitors for network interconnection (with various excuses: technical issues, scheduling and time, and expense involved); or, charge to its retail arm lower fees than to its competitors.
  • Discriminatory Service – Provide lower quality products or services to competitors.
  • Blocking – Block or degrade consumer access to certain applications and content in order to discourage access to competing services or encourage additional fees for access.
  • Predatory Pricing – Reduce subscriber fees (temporarily) to such a low level (even zero profit or below cost) that new entrants cannot survive.
  • Tying – Make the sale of one product (to customers or competitors) conditional upon the purchase of a second product.
  • Bundling – Offer discounts to customers who take a combination of products/services;
  • Exclusive Deals – Enter into agreements with distributors that preclude them from offering products or services of competitors.

A solution to the practices could be a set of simple and transparent rules and regulations that directly or indirectly prohibit or preclude the use of such practices. Net Neutrality is the principle and the mode of internetwork management and operation that achieves that.

The Internet is the communications infrastructure for all of us. It provides our access to information. Its openness, availability, and accessibility is crucial to our democracy, for democracy cannot exist without communications. If private operators are unwilling or unable to provide an open and net-neutral nationwide communications service, then the government should step in with re-regulation. Or we should proceed with building municipal networks and interconnecting them to form a new publicly owned and operated Internet.