The War of Network Neutrality

bridges vol. 13, April 2007 / Feature Article

by Harold Furchtgott-Roth

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furchtgott-roth_harold_small.jpgHarold Furchtgott-Roth

"Neutrality" - who could be against it? The very word evokes images of pacifism rather than belligerence, impartiality rather than advocacy. Often, "neutrality" is the rational middle ground between warring factions.

But "network neutrality" is different. The phrase represents the war itself, a conflict among competing views of the appropriate regulation of the Internet. The war has many competing factions - network operators, applications providers, equipment manufacturers, consumers, and others. "Network neutrality" is not the demilitarized no-man's land between the factions. Rather, the different factions compete to define "network neutrality" in their own terms, and they try to persuade governments to take corresponding regulatory actions.

Thus, paradoxically, we have the War of Network Neutrality, the war to shape the regulation of the Internet. Because the Internet is a ubiquitous network transcending national boundaries, many different governmental bodies have the potential to regulate the Internet. Each of these institutions becomes a potential battleground in the War of Network Neutrality. It is fought at international conferences. It is fought in national governments including Austria, the European Union, and the United States. It is fought in state and local governments.

It is much too early to tell if the war will ever be won by one group or another, much less by which group. Indeed, the war may be won by different groups in different regions. A single country may choose one form of Internet regulation; a Union of States like the EU or the US may choose a different form. But it is not too early to describe the contours of the many battles that have been fought.

The following article describes competing definitions of network neutrality, whether new laws are necessary to implement network neutrality principles, how network neutrality operates in an international legal environment, and the possible future of network neutrality.

Competing definitions

Potential government regulation depends on how network neutrality is defined. The term "network neutrality," while internationally known, has no universal definition, but most definitions of network neutrality fall into one of three broad categories: non-discrimination with respect to communications; non-discrimination with respect to equipment; and preservation of consumer choice. In each of these three areas, advocates in the War of Network Neutrality urge different definitions on government officials.

Non-discrimination with respect to communications

Network operators often have various technical capabilities including: blocking packets, assigning different priorities to packets, and monitoring packets. Network neutrality advocates often seek to have a government restrict one or all of these practices. As discussed below, consumer and governmental interests are not necessarily aligned with respect to strict prohibitions.

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