Few aspects of internet policy are more hotly debated than net neutrality. The Open Society Media Program’s new reference paper "Net Neutrality and the Media" provides an illuminating guide to this complex topic. Here, author Stefaan Verhulst explains why net neutrality matters.
In its 30 years of existence, the internet has transformed the way we access information, connect with others, form opinions, and make decisions. Most observers would attribute the internet’s success to its end-to-end architecture—a principle by which every package of information is delivered in a “neutral” manner, without discrimination or preferential treatment. According to this principle, data produced by an individual blogger or small independent media outlet is routed the same way as data produced by major news outlets and media sites. Many argue that it is this fundamentally democratic principle that is at the root of the tremendous innovation and creativity spurred by the internet.
In recent years, the tremendous growth of data on the internet—paradoxically, one of the main indicators of the network’s success—has spurred a vigorous debate over whether the end-to-end design principle should be replaced by a system that allows for the prioritization or blocking of certain forms of traffic. The outcome of this debate has the potential to determine whether or not the internet will remain free, open, and accessible.
As with all complex issues, there are many actors, interests, and points of view involved in this discussion. Many network providers oppose net neutrality, arguing that it thwarts their freedom to experiment with new business models, removes any incentive to upgrade existing infrastructure, and impinges upon their property rights. Law enforcement agencies similarly advocate traffic management approaches—such as deep-packet inspection—to allow for better preventing and policing of cybercrime and security attacks.
On the other hand, internet freedom advocates are calling for policy and regulatory interventions to guarantee that carriers continue to treat all packages equally, without “tiering” access. They argue that this is far more than an arcane technical discussion: the internet’s potential to spur and strengthen democracy, innovation, and freedom of expression are at stake.
My reference paper provides an introduction to the network neutrality debate, and to the various issues and actors involved. It presents a brief explanation of network neutrality as a principle, and then explains how and why that principle has come to be questioned in recent years. Throughout, it attempts to explain the important social, economic, and political issues embedded in what might otherwise appear to be merely a debate over technical policymaking.
Where do you stand on the net neutrality debate?