The internet as we know it is a seamless web without borders and defragmentation. It is however prone to dynamic fragmentation along a multitude of lines. It can be clustered on linguistic borders, political lines, and content control filtering and other equivalents. The internet infrastructure is held together by basic yet very pertinent concept-Net Neutrality. In the recent times, this principle has increasingly attracted a debate on whether it should remain as it is or a different model should be introduced. As the debate continues, it is important to understand the dynamics of the models that could be used to create the internet’s infrastructure. Central to the Net Neutrality principle is the concept that content providers and website owners should receive preferential treatments in regards to reliability and speed of content delivery when they pay for it.
Thesis Statement: Network neutrality is often viewed as the most significant issue in today's telecom and communications industry. Restrictions placed on network usage by Internet Service Providers in a scheme to make more money and remove healthy competition could have a drastic effect on the freedoms that Americans currently enjoy. Net neutrality is a critical issue and is vitally important to the future of the internet.
Definition of Net Neutrality
Net Neutrality, also Network Neutrality, is a concept that has generated a debate from different circles-in the economics field, law, academia, congress and the internet industry. The opponents and the proponents have different and parallel views regarding this issue. Undoubtedly, this issue holds a lot of waters and moderation is required while addressing it (Deeb, 2008).
Net neutrality, is the pertinent concept that preserves the open and free internet usage so that data packets are moved impartially and without discrimination (Marsden, 2011 ).It therefore guarantees a level playing ground for all internet technologies and websites without content and online application discrimination.
Why has it become a major issue?
Net neutrality has always been the principle behind internet growth. However, there are attempts by America’s major telecommunication market players, amongst them, the telephone and cable companies to eliminate this neutrality so that information being transferred is given preference based on the levies paid for it. To achieve this, they intend to impose taxes on content providers if they wish to have their contents delivered faster. Net neutrality has been the milestone that has helped the internet realize the many innovations, freedom of speech and democratic participation on the online platform. Commentators note that this action could cripple the internet and hamper innovation.
How it affects the average American.
The elimination of the Net Neutrality principle would have major impacts, not only to the average American but also to the other nations. Absence of Net Neutrality would hamper and stifle innovation that has most often been realized through the internet. This is because start-up companies and individual with brilliance cannot sell their products to the larger global market if they do not have enough resources to pay the gatekeepers. Similarly, free market and consumer choice would be sacrificed to the interest of a few private companies (Free Press, 2010).
Currently, the consumers can choose the applications, content and services available without considerations of who owns the networks. This is made possible by Net Neutrality. However, without the Neutrality, the content available on the Internet shall be regulated and at times with a bias hence the consumers will have to choose on what is available. This will affect both the internet consumers and the young innovators greatly (Deeb, 2008).
High speed internet carriers in the United States such as AT&T, Time Warner, Comcast and Verizon are seeking legislative support for a two-tiered Internet service model. This model will charge site/content owners a premium fee for priority placement. This model has received criticism as it is feared the extra costs incurred for premium services will eventually be passed down to consumers hence making internet usage expensive.
Proponents of Net Neutrality
Proponents of the Net Neutrality believe that Internet was meant to be Neutral and the consumers should have the freedom to choose what is good for them independently. Those supporting Net Neutrality are major internet companies such yahoo, Google, EBay and Amazon. Notably, some of these companies have become popular over time because of the Net Neutrality. The performance merit of any product, service or company should be determined by the larger consumer population, without them paying to get the viewership, as the proponents of the two-tier model have it (Deeb, 2008).
In a survey on Net neutrality carried out by Deeb K., S.P O’Brien and M.E. Weiner, they observed that net Neutrality had as well drawn a lot of support from the consumers and major technology based companies such Sprint and DISH Network. They noted that most of the consumers felt that the absence of the Net Neutrality would by far introduce bias on the Internet platform. They also felt that the big companies opposing this model would use their capacity as the gatekeepers to sell their less competitive products to the consumers (Deeb, 2008).
Opponents of Net Neutrality
The major opponents of Net Neutrality are America’s high speed Internet providers such as the AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner. Others who oppose the Net Neutrality model are the Competitive Enterprise Institute and The National Cable and Telecommunications Association.
They are proposing that there should be a two-tiered service model where site owners pay a premium fee if they wish to have their sites given preference of speed and reliability. Those in favor of the Two-Tiered model notes that the model already exist since the consumers have a choice to use the slower dial-up service or pay a premium price to have access to the faster speed over cable or DSL. The providers adds that if the business model is applied to Website owners as well as the consumers, carriers will then have a capacity to offer more services at competitive rates, such as Internet-based cable TV programming and video. They hold opposing views with the proponents of Net Neutrality and ascertain that the legislation protecting Net Neutrality is an unnecessary barrier of innovation and free enterprise.
Proponents vs. Opponents
The debate on Net Neutrality has attracted opposing views in the recent years between the proponents and the opponents of this business model. Central to the topic are fundamental concepts that have always made the internet a very successful platform for many businesses. Some of these concepts that have made the debate very intricate are:
The proponents of the Net Neutrality feel that the Internet has realized major dynamism because of the Neutrality. They feel that if this concept is interfered with through the model being proposed by the opponents, then information, sites and online applications will suffer from regulations that may be very detrimental.
The proponents also feel that the two-tier business model being proposed by the high speed Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would give them undue advantages to maliciously regulate their competitors and block online applications so that consumers may compellingly use their less competitive products (Robert W. Hahn, 2007).
The Two-Tier model is also criticized since it will make the average consumer pay twice when accessing anything on the internet. Currently, the business model demands that the consumer pays some charges to be able to access the internet. However, the proposed Two-Tier model will demand the consumer to pay an internet access charge and later on pay for visiting sites and using online applications. These charges will however not be on pay-per-view basis. The opponents of Net Neutrality suggest that the website owners should pay to have their data pipelines accessible to the internet consumers. This operational cost will then have to be passed down to the average internet user in form of price hikes. This will be a bottleneck regulation that will hamper internet dynamism and freedom.
Competition is the driving force behind the many innovations we experience every day. Internet consumers have for very long been able to enjoy quality products and services due to competition. Competition, as a business strategy, calls for continuous improvement of products and services to surpass those of other competitors. People have continuously developed new products and applications that have by far surpassed those products provided by the high-speed internet providers (Verhulst, 2011).
This is amongst the reasons why they would like to change the internet model so that they can virtually have access to what is flowing through the data pipelines. This could be have adverse effects on innovation as competition would be slowly eliminated leaving the online platform to the dominance of a few big market players who will afford to pay the premium to have their sites given preference (SINGER, 2007).
Internet was designed as an open medium where all business and companies have a stake on the basis of their merit. The fundamental concept since the inception of the internet has been that every feature, website, online applications and related services should be treated without discrimination. This has given every website an equal opportunity for viewership (Deeb, 2008). Neutrality has made it possible for CNN and other media websites to compete with blogs for readers (Free Press, 2010). Precisely, Net Neutrality has eliminated monopolistic business approaches. This is what the proponents of this concept are advocating for. However, the Two-Tier model will demand site owners to pay if they wish to have their content given preference. This then implies that big organizations will acquire monopolies over other lesser market players (Robert W. Hahn, 2007).
The private companies who are opposing the Net Neutrality model argue that they have invested a lot in the telecom industry as reported in a survey carried out by Deeb K (Deeb, 2008). They are therefore advocating for a Two-Tier business model that will require website owner pay to have their contents given preference on the internet. However, this will equivalent to double charging the consumer for accessing the same content hence will exploit the consumer for the benefit of the few private companies who shall be having huge financial returns.
Current Internet Laws in Regard to Net Neutrality
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
In 2008, the FCC found that Comcast had improperly slowed down data belonging to a file sharing site hence had violated the Net Neutrality regulations to the disadvantage of the site. In a 3-2 vote, FCC passed the first Net Neutrality regulation that enabled the average network to access any legal web content without discrimination. The ruling was instigated by the throttling of Bit Torrent transfers by Comcast (Castillo, 2010). The new rules required Internet Service Providers to allow consumers have access to all legal material, web applications and online calling services without discrimination. The law provides that Service providers can manage data on their system that may cause congestion but they should publicize their actions. Proponents of the Net Neutrality applauded these rules citing that they are necessary to prevent discriminative flow of information and data packets. However, the new rules received an equal measure of criticism from the opponents of Net Neutrality. They argued that some of the proposed regulations would hamper innovations (Deeb, 2008).This ruling is fundamental as it showed that the US government was in its process of having its stake and authority in the internet industry.
Comcast Case Ruling
After the FCC ruling in 2008 that placed sanctions against Comcast for violating the Net Neutrality policy, Comcast appealed against the decision. The company challenged the decision of maintaining Net Neutrality in a federal appeals court and appealed to have the FCC ruling revoked (Moya, 2010). The court ruled in favor of Comcast and stated the FCC lacked the authority to compel ISPs to handle all web content as the same and give them equal priorities. The court found that FCC lacked the authority to stop Comcast from slowing Bit Torrent traffic flowing in its traffic (WYATT, 2010).This ruling may be interpreted negatively by the market players while some of the companies may use it as a reference to practice discriminatory regulations against some sites. It is a triggering case that may require the FCC to rewrite their regulations in order to incorporate recent developments in the internet industry.
Antitrust is a business ethical model that is different from regulations in that; the market players can implement their own business model but the consumer can challenge them through filing a lawsuit (Toor, 2011). There have been proposals from the House Judiciary members for the antitrust approach to be used in addressing net neutrality rather than using regulatory structures that would draw the FCC to be involved with controversial cases and topics.
The antitrust lawsuits allows ISPs to use a system that allows high speed downloads and quick internet access to those willing to pay for them. This model is however being criticized as one which would stifle innovation, and allow ISPs to act as gatekeepers on the internet platform. Its proponents however argue that anyone who will be aggrieved with the model will be able to file a lawsuit (Roussos, 2010).
This model has been in operation in other fields of the telecommunications industry. One such case is where seven attorney-general’s representing Illinois , Ohio, New York, California, Pennsylvania and Washington joined America’s Department of Justice in a lawsuit seeking to block an intended deal that would see AT&T and T-Mobile merged. The rationale noted that this merger would create some duopolistic powers on the company hence reduce competition in the US wireless market. This merger proposal has attracted a lot of opponents from consumer groups who speculate that the quality of the services they get would be compromised by the duopoly that the merger would create (Gross, 2011).
The Net neutrality debate presents an intricate dilemma where the interests of the consumers and those of the ISPs are in antagonism. It requires moderation when addressing this issue so that the tenets of both sides shall not be compromised. Since both the opponents and proponents of the Net Neutrality have genuine reasons behind the staunch stands, an amicable approach to the solution shall be fundamental in order to end this stalemate. Such approaches may include:
One of the approaches to end this stalemate is by using Non-Discrimination rules to govern the internet industry. This will require the market players who are opposing the Net Neutrality to practice equal preference to all sites, applications and other competitive services on the internet. These rules should address the issue raised by the ISPs without infringing on the consumers’ pertinent interests. Such rules would include the ones developed by FCC which noted that a service provider should not discriminate against any legal content, site and applications. However, in exceptional cases where the company may be forced to slow down the content through its system, it should be to the advantage of the consumers and such practice should be made public (Marsden, 2011 ). This approach presents a perfect setup of the Net Neutrality model that is being currently used.
Little/ No Regulation
The other model that can be used to address the issue on Net Neutrality is where there are little or no regulations. This requires a lot of goodwill from the market players since it may be a loophole for some of the companies to take advantage of the consumer. It can be achieved through the antitrust lawsuit model where the companies come up with their individual business models without following any stipulated regulations. The end product consumers in this model have the capacity to sue the service providers in case of any discontentment with the company’s practice and model (Deeb, 2008).In such a model, the ISPs are required to allow flow of content through their pipeline without discrimination.
This model will require a government agency such as the FCC to be the utmost internet watchman. It will require the agency to develop rules and regulations that will stipulate the models to be used by the ISPs and other players in this industry. This may not be received with good faith in the modern day dynamism unless the market players agree on it through consensus. In such a case, the regulations should stipulate how the ISPs are supposed to regulate the content flowing through their data pipelines. An example of such a model is the Two-Tier approach that has been proposed by Internet service providers. In this model, the website owners are required to pay if they wish they content to flow faster on the online platform and for applications to run faster.
This debate will shape the online platform and will present a new model or otherwise retain the Net Neutrality model that has been in existence. The future of the Internet shall be shaped by the decision. Like any internet-related debate in the US, the Net Neutrality debate can have considerable global impact.
In many countries, internet is a source of information, e-learning and also a rich economic niche. It has been the backbone of huge economic booms in various countries through initiatives such as online Business Process Outsourcing (BPOs). Any compromise on the net-neutrality model can worsen the position of such economies and will expose some countries to sites with the lowest value only (SINGER, 2007).
To avert any adverse effects on the quality of content being accessed by the end user and the dynamism on the online platform, the best outcome of the Net neutrality shall be one where needs of both ends are addressed. Currently, the existing business model addresses this issue perfectly since the consumer is able to pay the service provider as the levy for accessing internet. However, with the advancement in technology, the internet has experienced a lot of changes in the recent past. This calls for a review of the existing rules so that these changes can be accommodated.
The future of the internet shall be characterized by a dynamic market with changes in quality of services and content on the online platform, positive change in traffic of information change in price models and technological innovations. These changes shall need a collective responsibility between the ISPs and the consumer so that an end-to-end harmony between the two parties can be realized.