The term net neutrality is elusive, partly because its meaning varies depending on the speaker and associated agenda. The general perception of the term is used to describe two distinct proposed regulation related to broadband Internet providers. One proposal suggests that regulators would and enforce some regulations that would determine acceptable network management practices, as well as unacceptable degradation of disfavored internet application and antecedent content. The other argument suggest that the regulators would ban an internet access provider from signing commercial agreements with some applications and content providers in order to provide sophisticated performance enhancement technology that is essential in the support of unusually performance-sensitive contents and applications, for example, the real-time streaming of videos. The two proposals are distinct but complement each other. Most net neutrality proponents advocate the anti-blocking rule as well as close regulation of business-to-business relations between networks and content providers. These proposals are likely to be the focus of telecommunication policy for some time to come. The proposals have got the attention of Congress, who already has some bills on the topic. The President has weighed in the debate with his demand that a strong form of regulation. The papers aim to examine the anti-trust implication on net neutrality regulations.
The Taxonomy of Internet Protocol Networks
The internet is now an important platform to drive innovation, economic growth, competition, and free expression as broadband deployment of investment. The internet is a general purpose technology and remains the engine that drives innovation, economic, and social benefits that accrue. The benefits accrue from the open end-to-end architecture of the communication technology, which is characterized by low or no barriers to entry for content developers, services, applications, and devices (Brauer-Rieke 594). It is also supported by a consumer-demand-driven marketplace for these products. The internet open architecture permits the innovators and consumers to determine the failure or success of the content, services, applications and devices without seeking permission from the broadband providers. Consequently, its open architecture fosters diversity and enables individuals to build communities (McCall 32).
What is often referred to as the internet is not a stand-alone centrally managed network; rather, it is an interconnected series of many constituent networks (Powell 10). The facets that joins these networks to make the internet is that each network has voluntarily embraced a common protocol as well as addressing schemata, the Internet Protocol (IP) that allows its users to link with users of who are connected to other networks in order to exchange higher-layer content (Brauer-Rieke 596). The IP networks are privately operated, and their infrastructure is used to offer managed IP services that may not be related to communication with other IP networks through the publicly accessible Internet. For instance, an IP network provider may allocate some of its capacity for the routing of internet traffic but also set aside additional capacity on the same infrastructure dedicated to the provision of high-quality, for instance video-conferencing on a closed IP network devoted to a multinational organization (McCall 36).
The Anti-Blocking Principle
The net neutrality debate advocates concentrates on two proposal requirements; a ban on the degrading or blocking of disfavored content on an internet access platform and close regulation on contractual agreements between broadband networks and content providers on the terms of access to the broadband platform (Croteau 10). The first proposal can be described as anti-blocking regulation, and it seeks to address the efforts of broadband providers to curtail their subscriber’s access to some given internet content which the regulator deems impermissible. In 2004, the FCC Chairman kicked the debate when challenged the broadband network providers to allow some internet freedoms to consumers such as access to legal content but subject to reasonable limits as provided for in the service contract (Moss 7). The Chairman’s comments were followed, a year after, with what became known as the policy statement that inherently embraced what he referred to as internet freedoms. The policy statement provides for the consumers to use and run applications of their choice for instance, video streaming or Voice over internet protocols but subject to reasonable network management (Brauer-Rieke 598). For example, in 2005, a small rural telephone enterprise going by the name Madison River Communication curtailed the subscriber’s access to VoIP services. The FCC found the company wrong for denying its customer’s access to VoIP since the action did not amount to any reasonable network management; rather, the company was simply protecting its lucrative access fees it earned from handling long-distance calls through the conventional telephone network. The telephone company paid a fine and promised to stop the practice (Moss 9).
In 2007, independent investigations showed that Comcast, a leading broadband services provider, had manipulated packet headers in order to suppress their customers’ access to BitTorrent a popular peer-to-peer file sharing application (Ruane 7). The controversy that ensued vaulted the blocking principle to the FCC policy debate. FCC declared that such application specific degrading was unlawful and found that Comcast network management could not survive the scrutiny. The Commission declared that Comcast had violated the policy statement as well as the Commission Act (Ruane 11). It appears that the government intervention in the net neutrality issues is gaining momentum and will involve highly fact-specific investigations into the case-by-case reasonableness on some given network management practices.
Support for Net Neutrality
The proponents of net neutrality favor the reclassification of broadband providers to common carriers. The support for reclassification stem from the concern that the broadband providers have the potential of discriminating services the Comcast case demonstrated. The proponents argue that the common-carriage principle demands that network operators serve the public irrespective of geographical location or usage (Cohan 7). The telecommunication organizations are expected to provide services to all consumers, an expectation that is premised on the necessity of the services and, therefore, should be made available equally to all who are in need of the service. Thus, if the regulatory authority abilities to enforce the net neutrality regulations are curtailed, broadband providers are likely to offer the services to the highest bidders and deny low-income neighborhoods access to the services (Croteau 19). The proponents of net neutrality further argue that the internet has become an educational necessity; therefore, the profit-oriented models that the providers seem to favor, creates a conflict of interest. It is further argued 5that the FCC rules do not stop the telecommunication organizations from charging certain content providers for preferential treatment (Moss 15). However, the FCC should exercise some oversight role, especially on the must-carry phenomenon.