The term “Net Neutrality,” was coined by Tim Wu in 2003. At the time Tim was a professor at Columbia Law School and concerned that the Internet could be controlled by a small group of large corporations, like AT&T, Verizon, Apple and Comcast. The center of the problem is, if the Internet becomes controlled by a handful of companies, those companies could eventually control the type of content individuals have access to online. Tim’s concern is that big companies and especially their owners could gain too much control over a public communication channel.
While the term net neutrality is new, the idea is not. In telecommunication history, the concept of a network operating without bias between users began in 1860, or possibly earlier, when telegraph providers agreed that standard telegrams would be routed equally, without discerning their contents. The telegraph lines attempted to be “end-to-end neutral” towards all users sending telegraph messages. Being the first of the public telecommunication networks, the telegraph set a precedent. Tim Wu as a professor of communication law is extremely well versed in this history and wrote a book about it titled, The Master Switch, in 2010. In 2011 Tim took a leave from Columbia Law School in order to work with the Federal Trade Commission’s Office of Policy Planning. His new job is to assist the agency with “long-range competition and consumer protection policy initiatives.”
Congress has attempted to pass five different bills containing net neutrality provisions. Each bill failed in its attempt to regulate Internet service providers from using variable pricing models to determine Internet user’s level of access. The idea is to protect open access to the Internet for everyone. The introduction of higher speed bandwidth has instituted a tiered Internet access based on subscription price. Verizon Fios and similar high speed network access is more costly than regular cable. But the problem is more nuanced than just access to faster bandwidth. Video takes much more bandwidth than other Internet services. Companies that stream video for a fee feel they should be able to receive the same prices to use the “tubes,” or cable lines as any other user and yet they get a premium for their delivery of a different type of content. Netflix is the perfect example.
There is no easy way to sort out equal online access, if for no other reason, because the technology continues to change and each new technical development produces new opportunities for advantage and bias. Broadband providers have both the incentive and the ability to interfere with Internet access. There are already numerous incidents. For example, in 2007 AT&T censored the video stream of a rock concert in Chicago. Words in songs were cut off by shutting off the sound when a rock band’s lead singer sang political lyrics about President George Bush. Also in 2007 Comcast, the nations second largest Internet service provider blocked file transfers from customers using peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, eDonkey and Gnutella.
The United States is not alone in this struggle to establish fair online access. In 2005, the Canadian telecom, Telus, blocked the website of striking workers. Those workers just happened to belong to the union that was striking against Telus. In 2012, the Netherlands became the second country in the world (after Chile), and the first country in Europe, to pass net neutrality legislation. The law requires Internet providers to not hinder or slow down online services or applications. The European Union established a regulatory framework for electronic communications in 2002. The framework is based on five directives that guide electronic communications networks in the areas of access, privacy, authorization and universal service. Those directives were amended in 2009 to refine their application for new technical issues.
Federal Court Action
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has tried on two different occasions to write rules securing an open Internet. The FCC attempts to establish guidelines that limit any behavior, commercial or otherwise, that will be harmful to consumers or competition by limiting openness of the Internet. No sooner does the Commission propose new rules than and active and sophisticated commercial lobbying effort begins to apply pressure. In January the last set of FCC rules were struck down by a Federal Court challenge brought together by Verizon. The basis of the attack against FCC rules was that they were “unnecessary and harmful.”
The way these rules and attacks on rules play out in the newspapers doesn’t actually present the problem of net neutrality in a realistic way. The fact that communication companies like AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast are already in the marketplace setting their price structures and there by making the rules is the reality. The dance between the FCC and the lobbyist hired by a host of internet service providers big and small is for show.
The most recent round of the dance is now playing out as FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler continues to press yet a new set of net neutrality guidelines. In this new set of rules the FCC will now allow internet service providers to offer several levels of internet access at varying prices. The response to these rules is an active and irate opposition from consumer advocate groups. The tug of war goes on in the game of perceptions about how net neutrality “should be arranged,” while in reality internet service providers already set the rules and use variable pricing.