The debate over net neutrality
Whose freedom matters?
In a speech that got little play today (probably because the news broke last week), FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed a rule known as “net neutrality.” According to the proposal, “broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications. This means they cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers’ homes.”
The proposal was met with widespread concern from internet providers who say that the government shouldn’t limit their freedom to manage their networks, particularly when they are increasingly at risk of being overwhelmed by bandwidth-hungry websites and applications. Consumer groups, on the other hand, argue that net neutrality is necessary to prevent internet providers from controlling access to what people can see or do on the internet. For example, without net neutrality, providers could potentially restrict or significantly slow access to certain websites or services like BitTorrent or online gaming. In theory, a company could slow down access to a video streaming site like Netflix while promoting their own video service with faster speeds.
What is particularly interesting about this debate is that both the case for and the case against net neutrality seem to rest on a freedom argument. Consumer groups argue that the internet should be free of restrictions. The network providers argue that they should be free to manage the networks they own. So who’s freedom matters more?
In most cases, we lean toward the freedom of the format/product maker over the freedom of the user. If Nintendo wants to prevent the makers of Grand Theft Auto from making a game compatible with the Nintendo Wii, they are free to do so. Few would argue that the government should be able to force Nintendo to let anyone make a game for their system. But the internet is different. As a place in which freedoms are constantly being exercised, there is a case for it being a medium in which individual freedoms should be protected.
Accessing information on the internet requires you to go through an internet service provider company. Transmitting and receiving information in the other ways – on a street corner, in print media or on TV or the radio – requires no such private intermediary. At the very most, broadcasting on tv or the radio may require a license. Of course, The New York Times doesn’t have to publish what I write, but I have other options for getting my views out in print – from handing out self printed flyers to starting my own newspaper. No one can stop me from exercising my freedom of speech through print media. But without net neutrality, I could potentially be prevented from exercising my freedom of speech through the internet. If my service provider doesn’t like what I have to say, they could freeze my website’s ability to upload content to others.
But the internet is different from the other mediums of free speech in another way: it has limited bandwidth. As internet providers will point out, a net neutrality rule would prevent them from restricting the bandwidth of downloading sites and applications, who otherwise could hog so much bandwidth as to slow internet access for everyone else. Internet companies argue that they should have this freedom in order to ensure the maintenance of their networks.
The question is, who’s freedom matters more. Your answer to this question will determine on which side you fall in the net neutrality debate.
Photo by Flickr user hpux735 used under a Creative Commons Attribution license.