Network Neutrality

Network Neutrality

An academic overview in 2008 by Jared Tame at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, home of the Mosaic web browser,, and Free Press.

When asked whether or not he would alter his telecom bill to address net neutrality needs more specifically, Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK) states in National Journal’s Tech Daily, There’s no way you can appease these people. It’s a fetish—it’s really something that doesn’t exist. But they want to stop this bill because it might exist.” Coming from the same senator that claimed the Internet was a series of tubes, Ted Stevens is trying to say that network neutrality isn’t really an issue at all. (Greenfield) Many intelligent, in-the-know, coherent people would argue this type of policy issue differently. They would tell you that network neutrality is another thread that holds the democratic United States together in a flourishing market. And the thread is about to be cut because telephone and cable companies want to do away with all network neutrality rules.

The Internet has come a long way since the 60s. The USSR launched Sputnik, and the United States decided that it was time to stay technologically competitive. The Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA for short) was born with the ultimate goal to create an improved radar system for the United States. In addition, the United States wanted to decentralize their communications systems in the event of an attack. ARPA moved from Harvard University to MIT in 1950, and it was here that ARPANET was formed to create the earliest version of what we know today as the Internet. It’s worth mentioning that telephone and cable companies had absolutely nothing to do with the invention of the Internet; in fact, they refused to support the growth and research efforts, while other government and academic organizations supported it. (Information Outlook)Several different methods and protocols of sending communication were developed during the period from 1960-1980, mostly for government use. It wasn’t until about 1988 that the network began to see commercial interests, starting with MCI getting approval for an internal mailing system, with CompuServe becoming approved and further commercializing it soon after.

The Internet experienced unprecedented growth during the 90s. Tim Berners-Lee completed a project called the World Wide Web in 1989. The National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign allowed the Internet to experience exponential growth by releasing the Mosaic 1.0 browser, which continues to power many modern browsers today (such as Internet Explorer). Each year, growth of the Internet exceeded 100%, with 1996 and 1997 being periods of substantial growth. During this entire period, there was an open set of non-proprietary Internet protocols without a centralized administration. This allowed all vendors to compete freely on the Internet, while preventing any particular company from gaining too much power or control over the network. This is important because the technology can be stagnated if left in the hands of the few corporations, instead of the billions of end-users. Lawrence Lessig,Stanford Law School professor and founding board member of the Creative Commons states, the complexity on a road network is pushed to the edge and manifests itself in the vehicles we drive: on a rail network by contrast the train is part of the network.” In a very simple analogy, when railroad track gets laid, can you improve the railroad track any further? That would not be the point. Once your railroad track is laid, you have a medium for which a vehicle can travel, and you are only limited by the engineering of the train itself. You establish the network to be as efficient as possible, and you let the open market and competition do the rest. What we end up with are many companies competing fiercely to create the smoothest ride with the best fuel efficiency. You are not held back or restricted in any way by the railroad track itself, since the technology is pushed to the very edge and rests upon how well designed and engineered the train is. Similarly, we should not restrict the efficiency or speed of the Internet, and we should actually be pushing for better alternatives such as fiber optics (which will be discussed later). If we limit the speed or efficiency of the network, how can we expect the products that exist on top of it to function at their best? Limiting speeds or changing the data would be similar to creating a faulty track. In a monopoly, which would control the cable and the quality of the content inside of it, there is no longer any incentive to compete, and it will work only hard enough to maintain its dominant position.

Several laws were established during this period to set in place various neutrality rules, however most of them were not formally written until early 2000. This is because the Internet was privatized in 1993 abolishing ARPANET’s Acceptable Usage Policy (UAP), which stated that no commercial activity was allowed on the network. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 went into effect, which tried to reduce barriers to entry and competition in the telecommunications networks.The act specifically required incumbent networks to “lease” parts of their network to competitors at cost, provide wholesale discounts to competitors, and charge reciprocal rates in termination of calls to the network. The act also required incumbent network providers to pass “public interest tests” and other requirements before being allowed to establish themselves in new markets. Later in 1999, a small Internet Service Provider in California known as Brand X sued the FCC because they believed there was an important distinction: cable companies should be classified as a “telecommunications service” and not an “information service.” This means competitors should be able to use the telecommunication services, which is nothing more than the data being carried by coaxial cables. Literally, as quoted in the Act, a telecommunications service is nothing more than the offering of telecommunications for a fee directly to the public, or to such classes of users as to be effectively available directly to the public, regardless of the facilities used.” There is a clear distinction, whereas an “information service” literally means, as stated in the Act:

the offering of a capability for generating, acquiring, storing, transforming, processing, retrieving, utilizing, or making available information via telecommunications, and includes electronic publishing, but does not include any use of any such capability for the management, control, or operation of a telecommunications system or the management of a telecommunications service.

You can see from this that the roles are clear and distinct: a telecommunication service sells the ability to use the coaxial cables. The information service is responsible for everything beyond and in between that. The Act enforces regulation on the telecommunication services, but when the verdict ruled that the companies were both a telecom and information service, they were no longer regulated in the same way. This is believed to be where the neutrality issue really began. Massive corporations like AT&T who were previously treated like a telecommunications carrier now enjoyed the freedom of an information service. The decision was ultimately passed in favor of Brand X by a panel of judges at Seattle in 2003, the same year Tim Wu published “Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination” to establish a more formal set of rules. However, in 2005 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision and ruled that cable companies no longer were required to share their infrastructure with the competing internet providers. In the same year, the FCC enforced neutrality rules on a small high-speed provider of Internet service called Madison River Communications. Shortly after, the FCC wrote their own neutrality rules and announced them, with 4 basic principles. This caused Edward Whitacre, the former CEO of SBC Communications to complain, stating in a Business Week article in November, 2005there's going to have to be some mechanism for these [Internet upstarts] who use these pipes to pay for the portion they're using. The Internet can't be free in that sense, because we and the cable companies have made an investment.” It is considered to be at about this time, in November 2005, when the debate picked up popularity and was driven to the mainstream news level with consumers. (Shrimali)

A bill known as the Internet Freedom and Preservation Act of 2006 would establish an important rule for the first time in history that would hold any internet provider responsible for traffic discrimination in violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act. The Clayton Antitrust Act is relevant because a specific provision in Act Section 2 states, “price discrimination [is not allowed] between different purchasers if such discrimination substantially lessens competition or tends to create a monopoly in any line of commerce.” This made it illegal for providers to alter the Quality of Service (or Internet speed), refuse traffic to any destination on the Internet, in addition to creating a “two tier” network where people pay a premium price on top of existing service to experience true high-speed Internet speeds. Unfortunately, this bill never made its way to the U.S. House of Representatives, and another attempt under the Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 passed 321-101 by the House, but was filibustered in the Senate.

Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, posted a widely circulated YouTube video urging people to contact their congressmen and support network neutrality. Free Press launched, a massive support and resource effort for net neutrality.(Dysart)Many prominent figures have since announced their concern about the threat over net neutrality, including Google CEO Eric Schmidt, who was quoted at in an open letter to the public saying:

The Internet as we know it is facing a serious threat... Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay.

There is one major group that is against network neutrality, and it’s important to realize a few things before describing their position on neutrality. First, the group known as Hands Off The Internet is considered to be “a big-money front group whose mission is to make operators and ISPs (Internet Service Providers) monitor private Internet traffic.” This was a description given by Washington D.C.-based digital rights group Public Knowledge. Hands Off The Internet consist of member organizations AT&T, Qwest, Alcatel Lucent, 3M, and dozens of others. Hands Off The Internet rebranded themselves as “Arts+Labs,” so when referring to the arguments against network neutrality, it is either cited by one of these two groups, which are essentially the same entity, with a different name. Arts+Labs is partnered with Viacom, Microsoft, NBC Universal, Songwriters Guild of America, AT&T, and Cisco.

On the Hands Off The Internet website, they claim the Internet is reaching its capacity, with “60% annual growth with the urgent need for new investment.” The major argument states that more than ever, users are watching videos online, which is a more bandwidth-intensive application of the Internet. Instead of just sending e-mail and chatting over instant messenger services, we are now using more data, and therefore the Internet Service Providers are justified in charging more for their network usage. Another argument from Hands Off The Internet states from its website that the Internet is already protected, because Title 1 of the Communications Act of 1934 states the FCC has the power to intervene in future cases of discrimination. Also cited in the arguments are three antitrust laws, The Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890, Clayton Antitrust Act of 1914, and the Sherman Antitrust Act. Most of their major arguments state that it would be difficult for any company to become a monopoly. (Hands Off The Internet)

Arts+Labs described in a September, 2008 article on PC Advisor, that they will be fully devoted to addressing “net pollution” piracy. This is essentially a fancy word for getting rid of people who download large files. They were literally implying that people who used programs like BitTorrent to download and share large files were polluting the Internet. What Arts+Labs has effectively done is to create the illusion that network neutrality exists as a “public debate” when in fact, the grassroots supporters of network neutrality are the most involved and most supportive of Internet growth and development, with zero profit interests. The polar opposite is arguing in favor of keeping the Internet from advancing because their existence depends on their old and outdated technology using coaxial cables and routing equipment that wasn’t even designed for the Internet, but was designed for telephone calls. What we have on our hands is effectively an outdated infrastructure that is fighting to keep things the way they are now. The grassroots movement also doesn’t want to get stuck with one company refusing to provide a better quality of service. What would be the problem with a community building its own local infrastructure, if the telephone and cable companies downright refused to provide better service? Of course any response to the tune of “that would disrupt the competition” would just be an attempt to maintaining a monopoly and the status quo. If the telecommunications services will not lay the infrastructure that a community wants, what would stop the local community from building their own? In a free market, this would be perfectly acceptable, but large corporations say this would disrupt the market.

The issue on network neutrality is considered bi-partisan, with both democrats and republicans supporting the Internet Freedom and Preservation Act of 2006, in addition to the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2008, which is supported by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and many others. Those in favor of the abolishment of neutrality laws include Bellsouth CEO William L. Smith, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre, HDNet owner Mark Cuban, and Comcast CEO David Cohen.

The major issue right now is making sure that internet providers can’t get away with breaking the major terms of network neutrality. The terms, which are currently under intense debate by both sides, include: traffic discrimination, double-dipping, and innovation stifling.

In short, traffic discrimination allows the Internet service providers to treat the Internet users differently depending on a variety of factors. If you visit a particular website, such as YouTube, your quality of service (or Internet speed) can be reduced dramatically. However, if you visit a site like Hulu, which is funded by large media companies, speeds will be returned to normal. Perhaps downloading movies from iTunes will be very slow, but if you use Comcast Video On Demand, speeds will not be slowed down. Net neutrality says that Internet providers can do only what they’re best at: providing the cables by which the Internet moves its information across. They cannot block access to particular websites and they cannot slow you down for any reason. They also cannot block desktop applications, such as BitTorrent. In short, the providers are not allowed to interfere, change, or discriminate the data that is moving through their cables. (Fitzgerald)

The second neutrality term is called double-dipping. Right now you only pay one monthly fee for Internet access. You may even have a bandwidth cap, such as 250 gigabytes per month, but you pay once, and you can access all data equally. What Internet providers are proposing now is that people pay once for Internet access, and again for using particular applications or websites. To go further, Internet providers may only count particular websites as “using up your bandwidth allocation,” while using others is “free” or “included with no extra charge.” It’s very similar to how pay-per-view cable TV packages work; you pay for watching a movie once. Internet providers want to gain more profits by charging you every time you visit a particular website, or maybe when you watch videos from select sites such as YouTube.

The third and final major neutrality term is called innovation stifling. It may seem counterintuitive, but one of the goals of the cable and phone companies is to prevent innovation, because innovation can often times be seen as “disruptive” or “creative destruction.” These advancements can be economically beneficial by replacing older, outdated, and inefficient methods of doing things. Skype, for example, is seen as a popular alternative that is cheaper than making traditional phone calls. Skype uses VoIP technology, which is sending your voice as data over the Internet, and essentially making it completely free to you as the end-user. You can see this may prevent phone companies from profits once a new technology has replaced it. Innovation is seen as threatening to larger, established companies who become focused on satisfying shareholders and driving profits up for executive leadership, instead of innovating and delivering real value and technological contributions to society as a whole. There are new tactics phone companies want to use to encourage innovation stifling. Large phone and cable companies would be able to pay “protection money,” as describes it, which would guarantee them the ability to “enjoy life in the fast lane.”