The Essential Guide to Network Neutrality

The Internet has proven to be a remarkable business incubator. Google , eBay Inc .and a variety of other companies, both large and small, owe their very existence to the open-network platform often described as "the Net" or "cyberspace."

From the beginning, the Internet has served as a neutral playing field where anyone can set up a presence and, free from commercial interference, use various types of Web content — text, graphics, audio and video — to attract visitors and even run a profitable business. Over the past several years, this equitable stance has led to the concept of network neutrality , which embodies the principle that ISPs cannot discriminate against Web sites or services based on their source, ownership or destination.

Yet, as the Internet matures, the companies that provide Web access would like to use their gatekeeper status to influence different kinds of content providers, giving preferential treatment to some services while discriminating against others. Recent statements by several ISPs regarding their views and plans for Internet services have ignited a firestorm within the Internet community, pitting the service providers against many Internet-based organizations, businesses and users who prefer the status quo. This battle has now reached the halls of the U.S. government , and it is increasingly likely that the current impasse will not be resolved without some federal involvement.

The Case Against Network Neutrality

The nation's largest ISPs, including AT&T , Time Warner , Verizon , Cox Communications Inc . and Comcast , are the strongest network-neutrality opponents. Yet these firms steadfastly deny that they are trying to hijack the Internet, as some as their critics claim.

The ISPs insist that their primary interest is simply to ensure better and more reliable service by prioritizing content to meet their customers' needs. They also state that their actions are essential to comprehensive Internet security ; they must prevent outlaw services from taking advantage of customers through illegal Net activities, such as phishing sites and intellectual-property-robbing peer-to-peer file-sharing services. Many neutrality opponents also believe they should be able to charge Web-site operators, especially high-bandwidth services like video streamers, for the right to use the ISP's portion of the network, which feeds content directly to customers.

Neutrality opponents assert that any government measures directed at promoting a so-called "even playing field" would unnecessarily meddle with Net activities and, in effect, place the government in charge of critical aspects of the Web's design and operation. Such interference, opponents claim, would stifle Internet growth, hinder the roll out of broadband access and tilt the market toward businesses that use the most bandwidth yet pay the least for network costs within a neutral environment.

The Case for Network Neutrality

Supporters of network neutrality include the businesses that have the most to gain from a neutral Internet — companies such as , Google , Yahoo! Inc ., Microsoft and Facebook . Also backing the cause are the editorial boards of several major newspapers, including The New York Times , Los Angeles Times , San Francisco Chronicle and San Jose Mercury News . Organizations such as the American Library Association , Gun Owners of America , Christian Coalition of America and Consumers Union , as well as Internet pioneer Vint Cerf , are also carrying the "free Internet" banner.

Network-neutrality proponents claim that rather than protecting their customers' interests, ISPs are trying to squash competition in order to benefit their own Internet services, including email, IP telephony , search technology, news and information content aggregation, classified advertising, and social networking. They argue that by attempting to monopolize both access and content, such firms are essentially "double-dipping."

According to network-neutrality advocates, the loss of a free and open Internet would lead to less innovation, since individuals and small startups buckle under new service and cost restrictions imposed by ISPs. The biggest losers in this situation will be consumers, who will inevitably face fewer service choices and higher fees, argue neutrality supporters. The national business and financial climate will also suffer, they allege, as Internet innovation and growth slows.

The Outlook

With accusations flying back and forth, it appears unlikely that either side will budge from its entrenched position without government prodding. The best chance of such action will likely come from the passage or defeat of the Internet Freedom Preservation Act 2008 (HR 5353), a new bipartisan bill.

Introduced on Feb. 12, 2008 by Reps. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Chip Pickering (R-Miss.), HR 5353 would insert the network-neutrality concept into the Communications Act, the law that governs U.S. telecommunications services. The measure would also require the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to hold no less than eight "broadband summits" to collect public input on policies to "promote openness, competition, innovation, and affordable, ubiquitous broadband service for all individuals in the United States."

Both sides are now heavily lobbying Congress for the bill's passage or defeat.