Taiwanese-American legal scholar and Columbia University media law professor Tim Wu coined the term “network neutrality” or net neutrality in 2003. He based it on the concept of a common carrier which has been used to describe the responsibilities of maritime transportation companies, commercial airliners, public transportation operators and providers, and telephone service providers. Hence, in borrowing from the foundational idea behind a common carrier, net neutrality highlights and advances the responsibilities of internet service providers.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Net Neutrality: Notable Arguments For and Argument Against
Net neutrality is specifically a principle that advances the equal treatment of all internet data and internet traffic irrespective of source, destination, and content. This means that internet service providers should not block, slow down, or favor certain websites, applications, services, and content. Proponents and supporters of this principle argue that it would democratize access to the internet while promoting various rights associated with the use of the internet or consumption of internet services. However, for its critics, they have argued that the principle can obstruct equal access to the internet and impede the established operations of internet service providers.
Pros of Net Neutrality: Applications and Benefits
Advancing net neutrality through legal mandates addresses the issues that come with the alleged discriminatory practices of internet service providers. Some have noted that these providers have controlled internet traffic and limited how the public access certain websites, applications, and services. Hence, for proponents and supporters, the internet should be an open platform that is free from control. The following are the purported advantages of net neutrality:
1. Ensures Free Competition in Different Markets
Giving internet service providers a free reign over internet traffic can stifle competition across various internet-related markets. Advocates of net neutrality have argued that providers can charge websites, applications, and services a premium to go through their networks without throttle. This can put smaller organizations at a disadvantage.
An example would be a small electronic commerce website or an upstart video streaming service provider that does not have all the relevant technical resources to provide its users faster access to its platform, unlike its more established and technically advanced competitors. The competitive edge of this organization would be undermined further if an internet service provider gives bigger organizations preferential treatment through paid access to internet fast lanes.
Startup organizations start with little capital and resources. Former chairperson of the United States Federal Communications Commission Thomas Wheeler and American politicians Alan Franken and Ronald Wyden explained that net neutrality allowed platforms like YouTube to thrive and outcompete internet giants such as Google back then.
Netflix provided a real-world testament to how internet service providers can gatekeep internet traffic. The video streaming platform admitted in 2014 that it paid Comcast Corporation and Verizon Communications to avoid throttling and improve content delivery and the entire user experience of its subscribers. Netflix co-founder and chairperson Reed Hastings described this additional cost as an arbitrary tax and arbitrary interconnection toll.
R. Prasad and V. Sridhar also noted in their paper that AT&T bundled the iPhone 3G with its 3G network service in 2014. This involved restricting which iOS applications could run on its network. This demonstrated the creation of private networks and the fragmentation of network services which can disadvantage app developers and content providers.
2. Protects Public Welfare and Consumer Rights
Another advantage of net neutrality is that it protects and upholds different rights of the public. The Internet Slowdown Day which was part of the Battle for the Net Initiative was held on 10 September 2014 in the United States. It was a digital protest aimed at raising public awareness and urging government officials not to repeal net neutrality laws.
Participants of the protest included Netflix, Vimeo, Reddit, Mozilla, Twitter, Urban Dictionary, and Foursquare, among others. These participants showcased a “loading” icon on their respective websites or platforms to simulate what the internet would look like if internet service providers were given free rein over internet traffic and allowed to give certain websites an unfair advantage over others due to the absence of net neutrality laws.
One of the points advanced during the Internet Slowdown Day was that eliminating neutrality within the realms of internet service delivery would threaten free speech. For example, without relevant laws, internet service providers can slow down or block access to specific websites. This could limit freedom of expression and access to diverse sources of information.
American legal scholar Lawrence Lessig and American professor of communications Robert W. McChesney earlier explained that net neutrality ensures that the Internet remains a free and open technology. The two added further that monopolistic activities could suppress independent news sources and the generation and dissemination of novel digital content. These situations mark the suppression of free speech and freedom of expression.
Net neutrality also protects the rights and welfare of the consumers. It prevents internet service providers from charging their subscribers additional fees just for accessing certain websites, applications, or services. This means giving consumers the freedom to choose whatever they want to see on the internet or what content they want to consume.
Cons of Net Neutrality: Issues and Criticisms
Opponents of net neutrality have deemed the aforementioned advantages or benefits useless and inapplicable. Critics of the principles include internet service providers, computer hardware manufacturers, notable technologists, several civil rights groups, and even economists. These groups and individuals have argued and explained that the principle would produce more harm than good. The following are the purported disadvantages of net neutrality:
1. Unnecessary Regulation With No Real Benefits
Several Nobel Prize laureate economists have opposed net neutrality. Gary Becker argued that the claims about some of its purported advantages do not provide a compelling rationale for regulation because there is a significant and growing competition with few significant competitive problems observed among providers of internet access.
The paper from Becker and his fellow economists mentioned that the number of high-speed broadband access lines in the United States grew from 16 million to nearly 133 million and the number of residential broadband lines grew from 14 million to nearly 80 million between 2002 and 2008. Internet traffic also tripled between 2007 and 2009 while prices for broadband internet access service had significantly decreased due to competitive forces.
Hence, based on the above alone, even with the absence of net neutrality, the fact that the market for internet access has become more competitive due to the emergence of new entrants would make it impossible for a single internet service provider to have some sort of monopolistic control over internet traffic and consumer choice.
PayPal founder and Meta Platforms investor Peter Thiel also said in 2011 that the internet has functioned quite well for the past 15 years despite the absence of laws relevant to enforcing net neutrality. Another PayPal founder Max Levchin also said that the internet was not broken and internet access has advanced due to the absence of regulations.
Another related disadvantage of net neutrality and one of the arguments against put forward by computer science professor and internet pioneer David Farber it is that it could prevent the allocation of internet traffic to the most needed users. Laws that prevent traffic discrimination will compel internet service providers to treat critical traffic equally with non-critical traffic. Providers should be allowed to restrict traffic that is downright harmful.
2. Can Harm Service Providers and Consumers
There are several examples in which net neutrality can harm the public or a particular consumer. For example, as illustrated by Farber, it makes sense for an internet service provider to favor traffic for healthcare services over non-critical ones, such as in the case of a heart monitor of a patient over traffic delivering a music download.
It is interesting to note that Netflix and YouTube were compelled to slow down streaming quality in Europe at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 to prevent the internet from collapsing under the strain of increased internet usage. The pandemic had made video conferencing platforms like Zoom, Google Meet, and Microsoft Teams a staple in remote work arrangements and in delivering online learning programs.
Another disadvantage of net neutrality is that it could discourage investment in network infrastructure because internet service providers would be hesitant to invest in a regulated environment with no viable means to recuperate. These providers would also incur additional costs from regulation and reporting requirement compliance.
Other opponents also argued that non-discrimination of traffic would prevent providers from delivering affordable internet access. The Wikipedia Zero project from the Wikimedia Foundation was cited as a practice that violated the principle of net neutrality because it provided free access to the Wikipedia website. India banned free access to websites such as Facebook and BBC from the Free Basics application of Internet.org for a similar reason.
Treating all internet traffic equally means that it is impossible to deliver services tailored to the purchasing power of impoverished communities and consumers. For example, aside from India, Chile banned the practice of internet service providers providing their subscribers free access to certain websites in 2014 because it violated relevant net neutrality laws.
FURTHER READINGS AND REFERENCES
- Becker, G. S., Carlton, D. W., and Sider, H. S. 2010. “Net Neutrality and Consumer Welfare.” Journal of Competition Law and Economics. 6(3): 497-519. DOI: 1093/joclec/nhq016
- Breland, A. 2017. “What Killing Internet Net Neutrality Means for the Internet.” The Hill. Available online
- Farber, D. and Katz, M. 2007. “Hold Off Net Neutrality. The Washington Post. Available online
- Gustin, S. 2014. “The Hot War Between Netflix and Comcast is Escalating.” Time. Available online
- Gustin, S. 2014. “Netflix Pays Verizon in Streaming Deal, Following Comcast Pact.” Time. Available online
- Lessig, L. and McChesney, R. W. 2006. “No Tolls on the Internet.” The Washington Post. Available online
- Prasad, R. and Sridhar, V. 2014. “The Economics of Net Neutrality.” Economic and Political Weekly. 49(16): 52-58. JSTOR: 24480155