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What Is Net Neutrality?
Dec 26, 2018

cAlthough it relates to any form of network, be it a telephone service or cable television, the term is most often used to talk about Internet services in which all users have the right to send and receive packets of information equally. Under the philosophy of net neutrality, Internet service providers (ISPs), search engines, major online services, and other companies cannot restrict or filter a user's access to services provided by competitors.

Arguments in Support

Supporters of net neutrality suggest that some sort of government legislation is needed to prevent larger commercial websites from dominating the Internet. A government agency similar to the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could be given the power to oversee the basic network to prevent the formation of "robber barons," companies who could choke off competition by controlling key points on the Internet transmission network. If any company can control what content is provided or allow some data to travel faster over the Internet than other data, it is argued, it can suppress opinions it doesn't agree with or prevent smaller competitors from doing business.

Neutrality levels the playing field for commercial websites, ensuring that a small online bookstore still has the opportunity to receive visitors, even if the websites of massive corporations are more popular. It stops an email provider from blocking email from a rival provider, just like a telephone company can't refuse to handle calls made by a different telco. Net neutrality also does not allow a large company to pay to get its content delivered first or more quickly than a competitor, which would give it an unfair advantage.

Arguments Against

Opponents of network neutrality often include those companies that would be regulated, including cable television companies, major ISPs, and large commercial websites. Some suggest that net neutrality is unnecessary because other network systems are controlled by their largest contributors and are still able to function fairly. If an ISP blocked its customers from accessing certain sites, for example, those consumers could change to a different service provider; blocking content, it could be argued, would make the ISP less competitive.

Other critics argue that more government control over the Internet's basic network could lead to increased censorship and invasion of privacy. In some countries where telecommunication networks are largely controlled by the government, there have been instances of content and services being blocked because they can be used to build opposition against the ruling party. In addition, they argue that companies shouldn't be legally forced to receive or transmit information from competitors or other websites they find objectionable, which has happened in isolated incidents. If all data must be transmitted neutrally, it could be argued, then an ISP might not legally be allowed to block spam email or viruses.

In addition, there are some Internet content providers who's services use much more bandwidth than others. As more and more users access streaming video, audio, and other data-heavy content, it puts the entire network under stress. When these sites are in high demand, it can create a bottleneck, slowing down all data being transmitted to all users. Many ISPs argue that, since these providers are using up a majority of the bandwidth, it's only fair that they pay more for it; charging data-heavy users more in a tiered structure could also allow the ISP to improve the entire network, making everyone's data move faster.

Wired vs. Wireless Internet

Supporters and opponents of net neutrality sometimes differ in their opinion based on whether the network is wired or wireless. A wired network is one that is delivered through wires, such as cable, a digital subscriber line (DSL), telephone lines, or fiber-to-the-premises (FTTP). The wireless Internet, on the other hand, includes WiFi®, WiMAX™, satellite, and mobile broadband. Because of the sharp increase in data usage on mobile devices especially, some groups who usually support net neutrality are more willing to compromise when it comes to wireless Internet services.

There is disagreement about whether the wireless Internet — specifically, that which is accessed on cell phones — is somehow fundamentally different from what most people use in their homes or offices. Mobile Internet providers often argue that, if they cannot enforce some level of control over their networks, they will be forced to raise their prices in order to make enough money to be profitable. They also suggest that there will be less incentive to improve their networks or develop new technologies if they cannot profit from them.

Regulation

As of 2012, there is no law in the United States that enforces network neutrality, although there is an informal arrangement in place to uphold user rights. Japan and some European countries do have Internet access laws based on the principle of net neutrality. In some cases, companies are allowed to block certain services or charge some content providers more, but there are transparency guidelines requiring that those companies tell their customers about any data prioritization, limits on bandwidth, or other methods that the ISP uses to control traffic that moves across the network.

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