Net Neutrality: What does the label really mean, and why is the policy surrounding it anything but neutral?

by Amanda Huffman

Indeed the concept of net neutrality has a catchy label—it’s conveniently alliterative and seems straightforward enough: a “neutral internet” is one that remains open and available to everyone and where all pieces of information are treated equally.

However, the simplicity conceals an overwhelming complexity. In fact, net neutrality has many meanings, depending on which stakeholder is writing the definition. Actually, net neutrality has many meanings even when one stakeholder is writing the definition:

“The concept that the Internet should remain free and open to all comers.”
~ Google, 2007

“But given political realities, this particular issue has been intractable in Washington for several years now. At this time there are no enforceable protections – at the Federal Communications Commission or anywhere else – against even the worst forms of carrier discrimination against Internet traffic. With that in mind, we decided to partner with a major broadband provider on the best policy solution we could devise together. We’re not saying this solution is perfect, but we believe that a proposal that locks in key enforceable protections for consumers is preferable to no protection at all.”
~ Google, 2010

The complexity over net neutrality’s definition turns into controversy when it comes to policy. The second “definition” above is an excerpt of a blog posting by Google (interestingly, a posting in which the term “net neutrality” appears in the title and nowhere in the actual lengthy posting) to explain its recent FCC proposal regarding how information on the web should be governed. The proposal caused an uproar among net neutrality proponents, who accuse Google of reversing its stance on an internet that should “remain free and open to all comers” in favor of one that creates opportunities for corporate profits at the expense of consumers.

Regardless of where we fall in terms of policy, the mistake we must avoid is assuming that the internet is currently, or will ever be, either simply “neutral”, OR “not neutral”. The reality is that the internet is complicated and controversial, information is complicated and controversial and corporate and consumer interests are complicated and controversial. All three are in play, and thus the term and the policy surrounding net neutrality are bound to be, that’s right, complicated and controversial.

Simplifying the debate such that we deem the fate of the Internet to be one of either freedom or enslavement does a disservice to what is most important about any regulation, or lack thereof, regarding the internet – that it remains both an effective and democratic tool to disseminate information. We should all take the time to understand the nuances behind net neutrality so that we can decide where we stand and then, of course, passionately advocate.

References:

Google Public Policy Blog. http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2007/06/what-do-we-mean-by-net-neutrality.html

Google Public Policy Blog. http://googlepublicpolicy.blogspot.com/2010/08/facts-about-our-network-neutrality.html

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