Excellent overview of Network Neutrality, from Wikipedia

Submitted by Norm Roulet on Sun, 06/04/2006 - 13:56.
  1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
  2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
  3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
  4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.


Some trends affecting the debate are:

  • The increasing use of Voice over IP, VoIP, and its latency requirements.
  • The increasing use of high bandwidth applications, such as online games, and music and video downloading.
  • Improvements in networking technology, which make providing broadband service, on the aggregate, cheaper.
  • The trend of governments funding the construction of high-speed networks in countries like South Korea, France, and for cities to build their own, wireless networks.
  • The increasing use of wireless home networks, which allow for neighbors to share an internet connection, thereby reducing revenues for the service providers. In urban areas this factor can be very large, with a great deal of people sharing one individual person's connection.
  • High bandwidth video and audio telecommunications over the internet (for example Voice Over IP technology) which threaten the landline revenues of telco internet service providers.


Network neutrality

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Network neutrality is the ideal that network designs and operators should not discriminate between network applications. As no network is truly neutral, it's more an ideal than a design principle. The term was coined by Columbia University Law School professor Tim Wu to support a theory of network regulation rejecting the traditional open-access theory. According to Wu's view, the Internet is not a neutral network, having evolved to give data applications preference over those that require low latency and low jitter, such as voice and video. Regulations on Internet access networks must allow broadband operators to make reasonable tradeoffs between the requirements of different applications, and regulators should carefully scrutinize network operator behavior where local networks interconnect. See Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination in the Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law, Vol. 2, p. 141, 2005, specifically:

True application neutrality may, in fact, sometimes require a close vertical relationship between a broadband operator and Internet service provider. The reason is that the operator is ultimately the gatekeeper of quality of service for a given user, because only the broadband operator is in a position to offer service guarantees that extend to the end-user’s computer (or network). Delivering the full possible range of applications either requires an impracticable upgrade of the entire network, or some tolerance of close vertical relationships.

This point indicts a strict open-access requirement. To the extent open access regulation prevents broadband operators from architectural cooperation with ISPs for the purpose of providing QoS dependent applications, it could hurt the cause of network neutrality.

Law professor Susan Crawford, on the other hand, proposes open access (or unbundling) as a means of promoting network neutrality. Crawford defines net neutrality differently from Wu, insisting that networks should not recognize diverse application needs but rather provide only the transport service appropriate to the careful file transfer that was defined in the early 80s as the Internet's canonical application. According to Crawford's view, bits are bits and accurate timing of packet delivery is a form of anti-competitive discrimination that ultimately leads to corporate control of the public commons. Crawford argues that networking is a commodity, like electricity, best provided by the government.

In Wu's view of net neutrality, the network should adapt to the diverse needs of emerging applications, and in Crawford's view applications should conform to the network's traditional service structure.

Network neutrality has been expanded by others into a general theory of network operational architecture. It means that the network is operated under the three principles of neutrality: non-discrimination, interconnection, and access. The principles can apply to any network, but are generally ascribed to the Internet. They govern the operation of the network, not the content or business practices of the network operator. Inherent in the definition is that network operations are distinct from the content side. Network neutrality is one way to describe the operational architecture of the global Internet. Nearly every nation operating a portion of the Internet, often by default, has adopted some form of the neutrality principle, depending on its definition.

"Network neutrality" is a term used in legal and political theory, not in network engineering; it is not used in any of the 4500+ design documents (Requests for Comments or RFCs) that describe the Internet's architecture and operation. The closest analogy in network engineering may be the concept of transparency, a design goal that is met when the network delivers messages without delay, jitter, loss, and reordering. No packet-switched network is truly transparent, as the basic service model in packet networks depends on resource contention, congestion reduction, and queuing. Circuit-switched telecommunications networks are highly transparent as distortion is minimized by isochronous access methods and hop-by-hop error recovery. Packet networks apply a number of different methods of queue management and packet forwarding, some of them quite sophisticated and each "discriminatory" in some way. Circuit-switched networks avoid queuing by pre-allocating communication resources for each call in progress.




Important terms

Non-discrimination means that all traffic over the network (typically or exclusively digital packets or bits) is treated the same by the network, including the traffic originating with the network operator. This principle of 'bit parity' means that all bits are treated as 'just bits', and no bit traffic is prioritized over other bits, and none is hampered or disabled.

Interconnection means that network operators have both a duty of interconnection and a right of interconnection to any other network operator. Networks must be constructed so that there are a reasonable number of accessible interconnect points; that traffic is carried to and from rival networks at reasonable rates; and that the network is built with sufficient excess capacity to accommodate the reasonably foreseeable traffic that may be presented at the head-ends or peering points. Without a right of interconnection, there is no network.

Access means that any end user can connect to any other end-user. End users may be people, but the term could also mean devices (modems, routers, switches) or even other networks. Access means that a piece of content, say, an email message, has a right to enter the network, and if properly addressed, be received by the other end user, even if said user is on another network. In other words, traffic can begin at any point on the network and be delivered to any other point.

Basic theory

Network Neutrality is a controversial theory of network design closely related to the end to end principle. Under this principle, a dumb network merely connects devices, and is insensitive to the needs of applications running on those devices. Contrast this with an intelligent network, for example an analog network, that distinguishes between the types of data carried on the network and treats each one differently due to the necessary differences between data formats.

Underlying the theory of the benefits of network neutrality is a belief that a neutral network promotes innovation (Schumpterian), or evolutionary innovation of information technology. In order to promote innovation, network service providers such as telephone and cable internet companies should not be permitted to dictate how those networks are used (i.e., not permitted to ban certain types of programs, to ban certain types of devices connecting to the network, or to favor carriage of traffic to certain web sites over others).

Network neutrality arguments have antecedents in other concepts in communications law, such as common carrier regulation and the "Computer Inquiries" approach. The contemporary use of the phrase "network neutrality" began in the early 1990s, and was first popularized by the European Union Information Society Bangemann Report, February 1993. The Bangemann Report recommended that network regulation require interconnection and interoperability. This was later expanded in the EU Convergence Green Paper into the concept of technological neutrality, which refers to the network architecture as well as a parallel regulatory regime. As originally proposed and understood, network neutrality describes a regime of very light regulation guided by simple and readily understandable operating principles. It is intended, and has been criticized, as a retreat from the sector-specific and highly intrusive regulation preferred by the existing telecommunication carriers.

The neutrality of the Internet may be a matter of historical fact, but none of the Internet's design documents mention it. Although there are many fine histories of Internet, Prof. Manuel Castells put the architecture of the Internet into historical and social context in his book, The Internet Galaxy: Reflections on the Internet, Business, and Society (2001) Prof. Lawrence Lessig tried to explain his ideas about network neutrality in Code and other laws of Cyberspace (1999), but the idea was really developed for the first time in his writing in 'The Future of Ideas' (2001).

Some of the arguments associated with network neutrality came into prominence in mid 2002, offered by the "High Tech Broadband Coalition", a group comprising developers for Amazon.com, Google, and Microsoft. However, the fuller concept of "Network neutrality" was developed mainly by legal academics, most prominently law professors Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, the first government official to endorse Network Neutrality. It is worth noting, however, that the ideas underlying Network Neutrality have a long pedigree in telecommunications regulation.

Proposals for network neutrality laws are generally opposed by the cable television and telephone industries, some network engineers, and some conservative and libertarian scholars including Christopher Yoo and Adam Thierer. Opponents argue that (1) network neutrality principles pose a danger to become the basis for more intrusive regulation of the internet, and (2) imposing such regulation will chill investment in competitive networks (e.g., wireless broadband) and deny network providers the ability to differentiate their services, and (3) that "network neutrality" confuses the unregulated Internet with the highly regulated telecom lines that it's shared with voice and cable customers for most of its history. According to this view, the Internet has succeeded in attracting users and applications because it has been an oasis of deregulation in the midst of a highly regulated telecom market. Critics of Internet regulation in the name of "net neutrality" also say the Internet is much less neutral than proponents claim, pointing to such practices as the Type of Service header in the IP Datagram, the practice of active queuing described in RFC 2309 and the existence of Integrated Services and Differentiated Services enabling Quality of Service over IP. They warn that sober policy formulation is impeded by emotional attachments to idealized notions of network architecture. According to this view, the Internet is still very weak at meeting the needs of real-time and multimedia applications, and its continued evolution is stymied by the efforts made by network neutrality advocates.

These views may be said to contrast with the historical development of network neutrality, which involves a retreat from intrusive regulation, and expanded investment in network construction, consumer and business subscriptions, and the technology sector which requires an open and neutral platform for its business model; they may also be said to more accurately describe the Internet as it has been and may become if not stifled by overly-zealous regulation.

History and current status of Congressional bill

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, consumers began to attach new devices to their internet connections, and use internet services that were not in existence in the mid-1990s. The reaction of many broadband operators was to impose various contractual limits on the activities of their subscribers. In the best known examples, Cox Cable disciplined users of virtual private networks[1] (VPNs) and AT&T, as a cable operator, warned customers that using a Wi-Fi service for home-networking constituted "theft of service" and a federal crime.[2] Comcast blocked ports of VPNs, forcing the state of Washington, for example, to contract with telecommunications providers to be sure its employees had access to unimpeded broadband for telecommuting applications.

These early instances of "broadband discrimination" prompted both academic and government responses. FCC Chairman Michael Powell in 2004 announced a new set of non-discrimination principles, which he called the principles of "Network Freedom". In a speech at the Silicon Flatirons Symposium in February 2004, Powell stated that consumers must have the following four freedoms:

  1. Freedom to access content.
  2. Freedom to run applications.
  3. Freedom to attach devices.
  4. Freedom to obtain service plan information.

As remarked upon by David Isenberg, Chairman Kevin Martin later modified these four freedoms to read:

  1. Consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice;
  2. Consumers are entitled to run applications and services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement;
  3. Consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network; and
  4. Consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.

On August 5, 2005, the FCC adopted a policy statement stating its adherence to these principles.

Under pressure from the FCC and consumer groups, the broadband operators generally relaxed their most glaring restrictions on network usage. In early 2005, in the Madison River case, the FCC for the first time showed a willingness to enforce its network neutrality principles. The FCC imposed fines on a local telephone carrier that was blocking voice over IP service. As Michael Powell stated, "The industry must adhere to certain consumer protection norms if the Internet is to remain an open platform for innovation." That case however, is no longer a precedent, as the laws that it followed no longer apply.


By late 2005, network neutrality provisions were included in several Congressional draft bills, as a part of ongoing proposals to reform the Telecommunications Act of 1996. They would generally require internet providers to allow consumers access to any application, content, or service. However, important exceptions allow providers to discriminate for security purposes, or to offer specialized services like "broadband video" service.

On March 2, 2006 press release Democratic Senator Ron Wyden (Oregon) introduced the first comprehensive Congressional legislation to protect network neutrality, in the form of the "Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006"

On March 30, 2006 press release Republican Representative Fred Upton (Michigan) chaired a subcommittee hearing for a mark up of the Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006 scheduled for the week of April 4th.

In April 2006 a large coalition[3] of political bloggers and citizen/consumer-oriented lobbying groups such as Free Press and MoveOn created Save The Internet, a political-action lobby endorsing network neutrality legislation. Within a week of its establishment, over 250,000 signatures were delivered to Congress in favor of a network neutrality law. Campaigns have also been launched by content providers (including Google, Microsoft, Yahoo! and Amazon.com) in support of neutrality and regulation ([Don't Mess with the Net]), and by service providers (including AT&T and Verizon) against it.([Hands Off the Internet])

On April 3, 2006 Congressman Ed Markey introduced an amendment to the Communications Opportunity, Promotion, and Enhancement Act of 2006 (COPE) that would have made COPE's existing neutrality provisions more strict. The Markey Amendment was defeated in committee by a vote of 34-22 with Republicans and some Democrats opposing, most Democrats supporting.

On May 1, 2006 Sen. Ted Stevens introduced the Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006. The Stevens Act directs the FCC to conduct a study of abusive business practices predicted by the Save the Internet Coalition and similar groups, but otherwise is free of network neutrality regulation.

On May 18, 2006 Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner [WI] and Rep. John Conyers [MI] sponsored the Internet Freedom and Nondiscrimination Act of 2006, also known as Sensenbrenner-Conyers Net Neutrality Bill. This bill says it is a violation of the Clayton Antitrust Act for broadband providers to discriminate against any web traffic, refuse to connect to other providers, block or impair specific (legal) content and says if a broadband provider gives priority to a particular type of traffic, it must give priority to all traffic of that type:

If a broadband network provider prioritizes or offers enhanced quality of service to data of a particular type, it must prioritize or offer enhanced quality of service to all data of that type (regardless of the origin or ownership of such data) without imposing a surcharge or other consideration for such prioritization or enhanced quality of service.

Network engineers regard this provision as a poison pill that effectively bars broadband providers from offering Quality of Service by banning the admission control procedure it depends upon.

On May 25, 2006, the Sensenbrenner-Conyers Net Neutrality Bill was approved by the House Judiciary committee on a 20-13 vote along party lines. The bill was widely regarded as part of a turf battle between the Judiciary Committee and the Energy and Commerce Committee for the power to regulate the Internet. Congressman Adam Schiff, one of the Democrats who voted for it, said: I think the bill is a blunt instrument, and yet I think it does send a message that it's important to attain jurisdiction for the Justice Department and for antitrust issues.[1]

Economics of network neutrality

A main argument in favor of network neutrality is that a discriminatory network distorts markets that depend on the network, and ultimately may slow national economic growth. For example, if a network favors search engine A over search engine B, A may become dominant even though B's technology is better. Similarly, if the network favors a usage of the network popular at a given time (say, Gopher, enormously popular in the early 1990s) that may slow the competitive arrival of a new usage (like the World Wide Web). In other words, a discriminatory network may "freeze" innovation (particularly application innovation) based on today's dominant applications. The link to national economic growth is as follows: many economists believe innovation is a major catalyst of economic growth, meaning that if a discriminatory network leads to less innovation, a country will grow more slowly. Opponents of neutrality regulation say this argument confuses a necessary form of discrimination, discrimination among packets with different latency requirements, with arbitrary discrimination between applications of the same type, and is therefore blind to network engineering requirements.

The arguments against network neutrality as a principle take three forms. The first and most common says that packet-level discrimination is absolutely necessary in order to provide Quality of Service on any packet network, and broadly-written regulations such as the Markey Amendment would ban it.

Another argument says that service bundling is necessary to encourage investment in the networks of the future. If a broadband carrier is, for example, allowed to charge more for a high-priority voice service when competing services such as Skype run at standard priority, the carrier's voice service will sound better, and this will limit Skype's appeal while increasing the carrier's revenue.

One response to this argument concedes that discrimination results in greater profit for broadband carriers -- but asks whether the costs in terms of application innovation are worth it. In the example, the operator is exploiting a bottleneck in the network to extend its monopoly from the network service to another sector entirely, in this case messaging applications. It also asks whether allowing discrimination is the best way to encourage network deployments. In other words, there may be less distortionary ways to encourage carriers to build out their network, such as using the tax code, or government funding.

Another argument against network neutrality relies on the economics of congestion. A neutral network is like a public good, leading to collective action or tragedy of the commons-like problems. Hence a provider may need to discriminate as between users or usage to ensure maximum network performance. For example, if some one use up too much bandwidth, this argument suggests, a network operator should be allowed to slow it down. The typical answer to this argument goes as follows. There may be more and less distortionary ways of managing bandwidth -- and blocking or disfavoring certain applications is more distortionary. A more neutral way of managing bandwidth is to manage bandwidth at the consumer side - i.e., to limit the users to, say, x gigabytes per month after which their transfer rate is reduced, instead of banning applications (systems of this type have been employed in other countries, e.g. Australia).

However, service providers in the U.S. have resisted these arguments, suggesting that they do not want to charge their users for using higher bandwidth, either because this might not be technically feasible or because it would be a major pricing change which might not be matched by competitors or accepted by the marketplace. Instead, service providers have been proposing to charge content providers to offset the higher bandwidth charges of the end users. This argument omits the fact that content providers already pay a service provider to host data on Internet for end users to consume.

It is possible that bandwidth limits aren't the central issue in this debate, but that latency is. Neutralists argue that charging for access to priority services amounts to "double taxation" If standard service goes for one price, and enhanced service for another, it is arguably consistent not to allow access to enhanced service to those who haven't subscribed to it.

The third argument is deregulatory. It says, network neutrality is a fine idea but will require government intervention, and intervention will invariably and inevitably lead to unintended consequences. This argument leads to a larger debate over whether government can ever act in useful ways, which is difficult to summarize. However, in response, some advocates of network neutrality have argued that FCC action alone is sufficient. Others argue that legislation will simply replicate common-carriage principles already long in place for many communications networks.

This argument can also be opposed on these grounds: Most high speed network providers are cable or telephone companies who are still granted local monopolies by the government. Government granted monopolies must be regulated because if the monopolies act improperly market forces don't exist to correct the behavior. Evidence for this can be found in the self-same telephone monopolies work to eliminate competitors from reselling access to their networks -- networks paid for with public funds. The networks regulated by the Markey Amendment are not monopolies, however.

Some trends affecting the debate are:

  • The increasing use of Voice over IP, VoIP, and its latency requirements.
  • The increasing use of high bandwidth applications, such as online games, and music and video downloading.
  • Improvements in networking technology, which make providing broadband service, on the aggregate, cheaper.
  • The trend of governments funding the construction of high-speed networks in countries like South Korea, France, and for cities to build their own, wireless networks.
  • The increasing use of wireless home networks, which allow for neighbors to share an internet connection, thereby reducing revenues for the service providers. In urban areas this factor can be very large, with a great deal of people sharing one individual person's connection.
  • High bandwidth video and audio telecommunications over the internet (for example Voice Over IP technology) which threaten the landline revenues of telco internet service providers.


Network Neutrality proposals can take many forms. While all share some features, some of the specific proposals are:

  1. Most Favored Nation -- operators must offer to all companies transit on equal terms, and cannot discriminate as between them;
  2. Radical Bit Anti-Discrimination -- operators must pass all packets blindly, and never make any decisions based on information specific to any packet;
  3. Enough and as Good -- if operators prioritize bandwidth, they must leave enough and as good bandwidth to permit non-prioritized services to reach consumers;
  4. Tiering only -- Operators may discriminate as between their customers, but must offer the same services to content, application, and service providers;
  5. Police what you own -- Operators may exercise discrimination with respect to entirely private networks, but not inter-networks.

Neutrality as law

Net neutrality has been instantiated into law in many countries, including the United Kingdom, South Korea, and Japan.

In the United States, there are no laws that instantiate net neutrality as a telecommunications standard. Many advocates, however, have spoken loudly on its behalf. This, combined with worries over favoritism by telecoms, prompted Congress to begin hearings on the subject.

On February 7, 2006, Congress called upon prominent members of the technology industry to testify on behalf of the standard, including Vinton Cerf, the inventor of TCP/IP, and current Vice President and "Chief Internet Evangelist" at Google. In his testimony, he said, "allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the Internet such a success." [2]

Advocates and opponents

Net neutrality was first proposed by legal scholars Lawrence Lessig, Tim Wu, Susan Crawford and others. Most of the major internet application companies are also advocates including IAC/InterActiveCorp, Ebay, Amazon, Yahoo!, Earthlink and especially Google. Software giant Microsoft has also taken a stance in support of Net Neutrality [4]. Non-profits in support include Moveon.org, Consumer Federation of America, AARP [5], American Library Association, Public Knowledge, the Media Access Project, Free Press and others.

Some U.S. technology trade associations, including TechNet, have remained noncommittal on the issue. The U.S. financial sector has similarly remained neutral, though this may change as the heavily Internet-dependent banking industry considers the ramifications one way or the other [6].

Opposition to network neutrality comes from a number of areas. Some who support neutrality in principle fear the unintended consequences of government regulation of packet protocol queuing and forwarding algorithms. Some believe that network neutrality reads too much social significance into a selective reading of Internet history. And others believe increased Internet regulation would make telecoms less likely to invest in network upgrades, particularly in fiber-to-the-home.

Network neutrality regulation is strongly opposed by the Bell companies and by some major cable companies. They view non-discrimination as compelled speech prohibited by the First Amendment because they think that cases like Chesapeake and Potomac and even FCC v. Turner stands for the rule that Telcos and Cablecos are First Amendment speakers, and as such cannot be compelled to promote speech they disagree with. Cable operators, like Comcast have taken a somewhat mixed position -- they have repeatedly affirmed that they consider neutral networks desirable, but think regulation is a mistake. The Bells, on the other hand, have actively pushed for non-neutral, tiered networks. The telecommunications companies desire tiered networks in order to compete with the tiered services already provided by Comcast and other cable companies.

Some non-profit pro free-market organizations, including the National Black Chamber of Commerce and Progress and Freedom Foundation, are opposing the bill.

Past discriminatory access by ISPs

Below are examples listed by SaveTheInternet of past examples of abuses by ISP companies where they blocked rivals or unfavorable opinions about themselves.

  • In 2004, North Carolina ISP Madison River blocked their DSL customers from using any rival Web-based phone service.
  • In 2005, Canada's telephone giant Telus blocked customers from visiting a Web site sympathetic to the Telecommunications Workers Union during a contentious labor dispute.
  • Shaw, a major Canadian cable, internet, and telephone service company, intentionally downgrades the "quality and reliability" of competing Internet-phone services that their customers might choose -- driving customers to their own phone services not through better services, but by making their opponents seem worse than they really are.
  • In April, Time Warner's AOL blocked all emails that mentioned www.dearaol.com -- an advocacy campaign opposing the company's pay-to-send e-mail scheme.

Relevance of municipal wireless and other "third pipes"

Much of the push for network neutrality rules comes from the lack of competition in broadband services. For that reason, municipal wireless and other wireless service providers are highly relevant to the debate. If successful, such services would provide a third type of broadband access with the potential to change the competitive landscape. For similar reasons, the feasibility of broadband over powerline services is also important to the network neutrality issue. However, as of the Spring of 2006, any deployments beyond cable and bell service created little new competition.

Comparison with transportation

The arguments of network neutrality mirror those in transportation regarding free and toll roads. Toll roads are in principle able to provide a higher level of service in exchange for a higher cost. In particular, high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes allow users to pay a premium to achieve a higher speed, and have been criticized as being inequitable for doing so.

Verizon's CEO has argued that Google should not get a free lunch when it uses Verizon's lines. However, Google is not initiating the transaction. Instead, Google would be responding to a request initiated by a paying Verizon customer.

Comparison with first amendment speaker

The United States Supreme Court has ruled in Miami Herald Publishing Co. v. Tornillo that first amendment speakers may not be compelled to put someone else's speech on their platform. In Miami Herald it was a newspaper. Cable cos and Telcos want to assert a free speech right to avoid open access that common carriers are obligated to provide. If the access provider is a Telco, it would argue that the Chesapeake and Potomac case settles the matter for granting telcos free speech rights, but as they get right of way access for free, they may be obligated by local municipalities. This is why they are going to Congress to get federal preemption. This is truly a novel and interesting question of how to classify telcos and cable cos.

See also


  1. ^ "House panel votes for Net neutrality", CNET News.com®, 2006-05-25. URL accessed on 2006-05-30.
  2. ^ Cerf, Vinton (2006-02-07). The Testimony of Mr. Vinton Cerf, Vice President and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google. (PDF) pp. 8 URL accessed on 2006-05-11.

External links


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