Net Neutrality

The Internet is a set of pipes. It’s also a set of values. Whose? The people who consider it a great social equalizer, a playing field that has to be level? Or the ones who own the network and consider themselves best qualified to manage it? It’s a philosophical contest that’s being fought under the banner of “net neutrality,” a slogan that inspires rhetorical devotion but eludes precise definition. Broadly, it means everything on the Internet should be equally accessible — that the Internet should be a place where great ideas compete on equal terms with big money. Even in the contentious arena of net neutrality, that’s a principle everybody claims to honor. Interpreting it is a different story.

The Situation

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission decided in February 2015 to impose more government oversight of broadband traffic. For the first time it defined Internet service as a public utility, using laws written for telephone networks. That gives it authority to bar service providers like Comcast and Verizon from charging content providers like Netflix for preferential treatment, and from blocking or slowing Web traffic. The rules would also, for the first time, apply open-Internet protections to wireless services for tablets and smartphones. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency would not seek to regulate pricing. Both Republican FCC commissioners voted against the rule change and Internet service companies are fighting them in court. What’s confusing is that both sides say they want an open Internet; what’s in dispute is whether a heavier government regulatory hand is needed to preserve it. All the combatants invoke “net neutrality,” as do other countries with widely varying definitions of the principle. In February 2016, India ruled that mobile operators cannot charge different rates to different parts of the Web, which ended Facebook’s offer of a Free Basics service that would have allowed no-cost access to its social networking site and a limited number of other sites.

The Background

The term “network neutrality” was coined in 2002 by Tim Wu, a law professor and author. He argued that no authority should be able to decide what kind of information was and wasn’t allowed on the Internet. But Wu also recognized the expense of maintaining network hardware, so he proposed that providers should be allowed to charge based on usage. People would pay for more bandwidth, not for access to certain sites. In 2005, the FCC released a statement turning Wu’s principles into policies. When Comcast interfered with access to Web networks that used a lot of bandwidth and enabled trading of pirated content, the FCC balked in 2008. Comcast sued, and won. The FCC set new rules and this time Verizon challenged them, winning in a U.S. court in early 2014. That’s what started the latest round of rule-making.

The Argument

U.S. President Barack Obama sided with Web activists and tech companies like Netflix. With Internet use and related costs rising fast, they say the FCC needs power to force a shrinking handful of powerful Internet service providers to treat all Web traffic equally. Republicans have sided with Internet providers who say that more regulation deters investment in a better Internet. Opponents also challenge the FCC’s legal right to upend the old regulatory framework that was in place as companies spent billions of dollars to build high-speed Internet networks. Beneath the legal and policy questions lies a philosophical one: Who owns the Internet? Providers who pay to maintain it? Consumers who pay to connect to it? Content companies whose services depend on it? Who balances their competing interests? The debate goes on.

The Reference Shelf

  • Professor Tim Wu coined the phrase “network neutrality” in a 2002 paper.
  • A Wired magazine article untangles some confusion over “fast lanes.”
  • Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 sets forth regulations “common carriers” must follow “in the public interest.”
  • The FCC described how it wanted to preserve “the free and open Internet” in a 2010 report.
  • The Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany issued a detailed “progress report”on net neutrality in 2012.
  • The comedian John Oliver has strong feelings about net neutrality. (He thinks it’s boring and “hugely important.”)

Edmund Lee contributed to the original version of this article. 

First published June 24, 2014

To contact the writer of this QuickTake:
Gerry Smith in New York at

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Jonathan Landman at
Anne Cronin at