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The meaning of net neutrality

The dust has finally begun to settle on the new US and European net neutrality laws. Richard Feasey compares and contrasts

The meaning of net neutrality

Discussion of net neutrality has always been hampered by uncertainty about what the term means. This reflects the diverse range of interests involved in the debate. For some, it has an economic meaning, concerned with ensuring that vertically integrated firms do not discriminate against competitors. For others, it represents a consumer right, ensuring that users are free to navigate the internet as they choose. Net neutrality has also been associated with issues such as media pluralism, censorship and free speech, and the wish to promote innovation.

Now we have settled legal texts on net neutrality regulation in both the US and Europe we can see how the issues have been approached by lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic, and so assist policymakers in other parts of the world who may be considering what they should do.

Origins of net neutrality

The origins of net neutrality need not worry us too much. The American academic, Tim Wu, is generally credited with inventing the phrase. Wu has argued that established firms, particularly those with market power, have a record of trying to control and frustrate new technologies and innovations which might otherwise disrupt their existing business interests. Since the internet has proven to be one of the most disruptive platforms in history. Wu and others have long been concerned that broadband networks that control access to the internet might also have both an incentive and ability to restrict access to certain applications or services which threaten their business interests.

This is not a new idea and, in the US, the origins of net neutrality are normally traced back to the Carterphone decision of 1968. In that case, AT&T was refusing to allow the attachment of anything except a telephone supplied by AT&T to its network. This clearly restricted innovation and competition in the telephone handset market, prompting the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to require AT&T to remove those restrictions.

The first net neutrality rules to be adopted in the modern era were found in the FCC's Internet Policy Statement of 2005. That was the year a Republican FCC chairman was dismantling the last of the 'unbundled network element' policy which had been adopted by the previous Clinton administration and which had been intended to promote greater competition in DSL broadband access.

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