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Who Owns the Internet? ISPs, FCC and Congress get ready for a fight over Net Neutrality

November 3, 2009 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Business, Copyright Articles, Online Privacy 

By Ed Nunes

Net Neutrality has been the buzz word people have been fighting over since late October when the FCC decided it would create regulation to enforce Net Neutrality.  Unfortunately, the issue of Net Neutrality has become quite confusing.  Advocates both for and against Net Neutrality frame their arguments in terms of ensuring freedom on the internet.  The issue is also a highly contested one, as shown by a bill brought by John McCain (The Internet Freedom Act) which would prevent the FCC from enforcing Net Neutrality.  This bill was proposed just hours before the FCC announced it would put regulations in place to support Net Neutrality.

What is Net Neutrality?

Net Neutrality is an issue that goes to the heart of how the internet functions.  When information is sent on the internet it goes first through the sender’s ISP, then through numerous servers around the nation (or the globe), then through the recipient’s ISP before it finally ends up on the recipient’s computer.  The most relevant step is that the information always flows through the recipient’s ISP servers before it can reach the recipient’s computer.

The term “neutrality” comes from the idea that all of the servers that pass along the data (including the ISPs) would not assign priority to any specific types of data, or data from a specific location.  All packets of information would be thought of as “neutral” by the relaying servers.  The fight is whether private companies, specifically the ISPs, should be allowed to give some types of information priority over others.

How does Net Neutrality Affect You?

Net Neutrality may seem obscure and technical, but it actually has a profound effect on how web-goers experience the internet.  ISPs only have so much bandwidth, and so when there is a high demand the information is queued by the ISP to send to the recipient.  This necessarily results in slower connection speed for the recipient.  Without Net Neutrality ISPs would be free allow some information (such as information from a partner company) to cut to the front of the queue, while other information (such as information from a competitor) could be slowed down, or potentially blocked all together.  Comcast got into hot water with the FCC last year when it admitted to slowing down the connection speed of peer-to-peer file sharers, though Comcast is currently challenging the FCC decision on the ground that Net Neutrality was not formally adopted by the FCC at the time.

What Are the Arguments on Either Side?

Those that oppose Net Neutrality, including John McCain and the ISPs, claim that Net Neutrality would be government interference in their private business.  They are claiming that their freedom to conduct business as they see fit will be impeded by Net Neutrality regulation.  The internet has prospered under the hands-off approach the government has taken up to this point, so they claim, and government interference will prevent the ISPs from providing the best service for their customers.  Essentially their argument is the ‘business knows best’ approach and that government interference is unnecessary and will likely be harmful to everyone.

Those in favor of Net Neutrality claim that if ISPs can prioritize data then the internet will become over-run by commercial interests.  One of the most unique aspects of the internet is the very low publishing cost, allowing everyone to have a voice.  By limiting or restricting access to some sites publishing costs may increase, resulting in only commercialized content reaching web-goers.  Supporters of Net Neutrality see this issue as critical to ensuring that the internet remains collaborative, with dispersed content providers, ensuring that the internet remains a free space for everyone to use.

What Will the Future Hold?

It is not clear how things will turn out.  While the FCC has plans to enforce Net Neutrality, legislation like the Internet Freedom Act could over-ride FCC decisions.  Even if the FCC is unable to enforce Net Neutrality there is no certainty that market forces won’t drive ISPs to choose to enforce Net Neutrality on their own.  One thing to consider, however, is that if we ever lose Net Neutrality will the supporters ever again have enough political clout to get it back?