Debates in the US Congress have recently brought this term to wide public attention inside and outside the US. The questions sound simple: should the Internet remain equally accessible to everyone, or should a two-tier system be created that requires companies who pay more or who use more of the Net’s capacity to pay a greater share of the cost? And should those who want a faster and higher quality service be asked to pay more for it?
The telecommunications companies (the telcos) argue that firms such as Google, eBay and Amazon, and online telephone companies like Skype, have built highly profitable businesses on the Net without contributing their fair share of the cost of running it. Providers of bandwidth-hungry technologies like video-on-demand should pay a higher fee to recognise the risk that they will clog the network. The decision by Channel Four, a British network, to stream many of its broadcasts online at the same time as they are transmitted conventionally is an example of what they’re worried about. Earlier this year AOL and Yahoo! announced they were introducing a two-tier e-mail system, in which senders of messages who paid a fee would receive faster service, bypassing the spam filters and other checks that slow transmission.
Opponents argue that a dual-pricing system would remove the key characteristic of the Net — that it is equally accessible to all comers. They point out that this neutrality is the reason why it has grown so spectacularly. They are afraid that the scheme would hand power to big businesses at the cost of the individuals and small groups who are its current main users. It might Balkanise the Internet into fiefdoms that would be controlled by individual telcos and ISPs, a possibility which Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the World Wide Web, has described as an Internet “dark age”.
The earliest example of the term I can find is in the title of a conference held in Washington in June 2003. A supporter of net neutrality is a net neutralist.
The road to hell is paved with good intentions, and that idea is often borne out by overzealous regulation, which often has entirely unexpected side effects. Despite net neutrality’s proponents’ claims, such regulation might actually mean that somewhere down the line, all of us will be stuck on a dirt road instead of an information superhighway.
The Motley Fool, 30 Jun. 2006
Net neutralists also fear that telcos will use the new freedom to block content that interferes with their own business interests. Telcos could do this by charging extortionately high rates to competitors, slowing down their bits so that their applications do not work well or simply blocking them outright.
New Scientist, 24 Jun. 2006