Since the recent success of Comcast's appeal of the FCC's enforcement of Net Neutrality, the Internet has been buzzing with opinions surrounding the ruling. While the court cases and policy debates are far from over, this was the first big decision on Net Neutrality in the US, enforcing an ISP's authority to filter and throttle traffic on it's network. Here's a brief primer on the issue:
What is Net Neutrality?
Net neutrality is the concept that the internet should operate as a "dumb network" and as a result treat all traffic equally. It's "dumb" in the sense that the network is unaware of the traffic it is carrying. The FCC's own definition of Net Neutrality states that consumers should have access to the connection of their choice, using the services and applications of their choice, on their devices of choice, in a market place where there is competition among providers.
The debate focuses on the control of regulation. Should network owners be allowed to self-regulate, or should the government regulate both private and public network infrastructure to ensure that all traffic is treated equally?
Furthermore, should ISPs have the right to use Deep Packet Inspection, or DPI to look at the content of information on their network? This has all kinds of implications, from discrimination of services and traffic, to the replacement and targeting of advertisements found on websites.
Keep in mind the influence of money in this debate, as both sides of the issue have deep pockets. Amazon.com, eBay, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Facebook, Skype and Yahoo all benefit from unfettered access to the networks of Time-Warner, Comcast, AT&T, and other broadband providers. While this will ultimately effect consumers, the battle is being waged via lobbyists.
Advocates of the FCC's regulations argue that allowing Time-Warner, Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to regulate themselves would result in the reservation of large chunks of bandwidth for service provided by those companies, allowing them to levy a toll to anyone wanting to deliver high-performance competing services. The concern is that the small companies and innovators in the market would be unable to compete, and therefore consumers would be at the mercy of the ISP, and have access only to the services the ISPs would be willing to offer them.
Examples include charging consumers access to higher bandwidth services like YouTube, or charging companies like Google a premium for priority service on the network. Whether or not ISPs would charge for tiered service is yet to be seen, but the argument is that they would have the opportunity to do so in the future.
Opponents of Net Neutrality often cite that ISPs own their networks--that they aren't publicly-owned networks, as many previously assumed. The ISPs' investment in broadband infrastructure has helped push the Internet to where it is today, and some argue that if they aren't allowed to collect a return on this investment and invest further, then network speeds and innovation in network technologies could come to a grinding halt. The ISPs state that they would become overwhelmed by the growing amount of video, voice, peer to peer and other media rich traffic that would be allowed to flow freely over their networks.
The internet is not currently "neutral". ISPs already filter spam, and regularly blacklist computers that violate their Terms of Service. Most people view this as a good thing, and the opponents of net neutrality argue that self-regulation has worked so far, and that the market will find the right balance over time if allowed to continue in this way.
The complexities of the issue extend beyond the simplification above and, moving forward, the FCC may make a move to either gain the necessary authority, reclassify broadband service under its jurisdiction, or for lobby Congress to pass some sort of Net Neutrality legislation. Either way, changes are coming. Let us know where you think things are headed, and how you think the Net Neutrality debate will impact you.