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What is Net Neutrality?

Broadly speaking, net neutrality can be defined as the principle that the internet should be regulated to ensure that its administrators and providers treat all content, sites and platforms equally.

October 2011

In "Traffic Management and 'net neutrality'", a discussion document which accompanied Ofcom's consultation on these issues between 24 June and 9 September 2010, Ofcom provided the following description of the concept, which serves as a good general baseline:

2.4 There are various definitions of 'net neutrality'. All see discrimination by network operators and ISPs between traffic as the core problem which 'net neutrality' policies should address. The purest version of 'net neutrality' assumes that:

  • there should be no prioritisation of any type of traffic by network operators; and
  • those providing content, applications and services via the open internet should not be charged by network operators/ISPs for the distribution of that content to the network operator/ISPs’ customer base.

traffic management2.5 In practice though many advocates of ‘net neutrality’ argue for a more nuanced policy than this. The debate has focused on whether network operators and ISPs should be allowed to block or degrade traffic using traffic management techniques, or (conversely) charge consumers, service providers or both for a certain guaranteed quality of service.

Opponents of net neutrality regulation claim that some level of data discrimination is necessary in the face of increased network congestion. They say that heavy data uses such as peer-to-peer filesharing, Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) telecommunications and online streaming of video content must actively be managed to ensure consistent quality of service across their networks. Others believe that regulation goes against the principles of the internet and imposing restrictions on the web will stifle innovation and reward inefficiency by removing healthy competition among providers.

Supporters of net neutrality claim the reverse: that regulation is necessary because the lack of data discrimination on the internet is what has made it possible for new technologies and businesses to grow online with such remarkable speed. They claim that without net neutrality legislation of some kind, vertically-integrated ISPs and telecommunications companies will use their control of the physical network to distort competition. It is feared that by blocking competing technologies such as VoIP and streaming, which require a lot of bandwidth and eat into traditional calling and TV revenues, and by requiring extra payments from content providers and consumers for superior service, ISPs could create a multiple tier internet which serves their interests to the detriment of everyone else.

the internetData discrimination is at the heart of the net neutrality debate. ISPs already manage data flows to some extent to ensure quality of service at times of heavy use. The question is whether governments should legislate to prevent ISPs becoming more interventionist in their data management, or whether less regulation is preferable, with existing legal frameworks such as consumer protection and competition/antitrust law sufficient to regulate ISP behaviour. Only the Netherlands and Chile have enacted legislation to preserve network neutrality to date, but the possibility of further regulation continues to be debated around the world.

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what is net neutrality?

"The question is whether governments should legislate to prevent ISPs becoming more interventionist in their data management."