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What is Network Neutrality?

What is network neutrality and what does it mean to consumers?

Problem:  Network neutrality, or net neutrality, is the principle that the Internet should remain open so consumers have unrestricted access to lawful web sites and online businesses and entrepreneurs can compete freely on a level playing field. Some broadband providers, realizing the potential for more profits, want to give preferential treatment to certain sites, such as their own content or sites willing to pay extra fees. Without network neutrality, broadband providers could block or slow down traffic to any web sites or services they choose. Services such as streaming video or making free or cheap phone calls over the Internet could be blocked. So could the sharing of lawful media content or access to political content.

What’s Happening:  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is in the final stages of adopting rules of the road that should help preserve an open Internet. These rules are necessary to ensure the agency’s traditional Internet principles are backed by the full force of law. It remains to be seen, however, how strong these rules will be and how aggressively they will be enforced by the agency. At a minimum, the rules need to explicitly preserve an open Internet and forbid discrimination based on content, the sender, or the receiver of information.

Why It Matters:

The Internet has been governed by principles of openness and consumer choice since its inception which has allowed it to flourish as a marketplace, public forum, and unprecedented information resource. But, now the big telecom giants have the technological tools and the financial incentives to make it a pay-for-play system.  Net neutrality is essential for:

  • Innovation and Economic Growth. Web sites such as eBay and Amazon were able to become global retailers thanks to the relatively low startup costs involved in creating an online business. Entrepreneurs can launch their ideas on the Internet where the costs of hosting an online store are far cheaper than leasing a brick and mortar location. Without net neutrality, an Internet service provider (ISP) would be able to discriminate against certain services, such as those that compete with a service offered by the ISP itself, such as cable TV or Internet phone services, and could artificially control which services succeed and fail online.
  • Free Speech. The Internet has reinvented the way ideas and policies are debated. Every American with Internet access has a voice in the political process through blogging, podcasts, or uploading videos via sites like YouTube. There have been several recent instances of ISPs blocking political speech and other lawful content from being transmitted and shared by consumers. Unless nondiscrimination rules are established, broadband providers will be free to block legal content that they deem objectionable or simply don’t want to compete with.

Access to Information. Websites such as Netflix and YouTube provide consumers with Internet access to video content they may not otherwise be able to see, such as news, documentaries, and political events. Without net neutrality, this content could be restricted by broadband providers that don’t like competition and want to keep consumers subscribing to cable for all their video content.