In the early 1990s, the Internet morphed from a research/academic/military platform to today's foundation for commercial commerce. That was also the time when the first legislative attempts to regulate the Internet were initiated. While some attempts have been successful, most have not.
No entity that is as complex and global as the Internet is completely free from regulation. The Internet's software and protocol infrastructure has been largely self-developed and self-regulated through national and international cooperative bodies. Internet content is often regulated through existing laws, including those covering telecommunications, copyright and patent, obscenity, and fraud, among others. The Internet's global nature also often results in clashes between laws in different countries. France, for example, has tried regulating Yahoo! and eBay auctions of Nazi-era artifacts under a French law that conflicts with U.S. free speech law.
The past failures to regulate the Internet have not prevented other attempts from being initiated, however. For example, three areas of Internet regulation are addressed in bills currently before Congress: content, international conflict, and--the most widely debated area of all--the basic foundation of the Internet itself.
"Net Neutrality" has become the buzzword surrounding efforts to set up different pricing structures for different types of Internet content. Since broadband Internet access through cable and telephone providers is now ubiquitous, these industries now maintain much of the Internet's communications backbone. These industries have discussed the possibility of establishing a tiered pricing structure so that those who want more valuable content would (or could) pay a premium for faster transmission. Content deemed less valuable would (or must) be transmitted at a slower rate. [Editor's Note: See our related story on page 1.]
The Net Neutrality debate emerged when e-commerce and content providers expressed concerns about the growing role of the cable and telephone industries as Internet service providers (ISPs). They worried that these companies could use their increasing hold on consumer Internet access to disrupt the flow of Internet content.
In 2005, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a policy statement that held that consumer DSL and cable Internet access were considered information services and not telecommunications services. The difference can be critical since telecommunications services are more heavily regulated than information services. Those regulations require providers to ensure nondiscrimination in access and pricing; consumer Internet access does not necessarily have these same protections.
Protecting the Internet
In one sense, the Net Neutrality debate is on the opposite side of typical Internet regulatory debates. Proponents of Net Neutrality argue that regulation is necessary to protect the integrity of and free access to the Internet; opponents argue that regulation will not protect the Internet and that it may even restrict Internet development.
ISPs are arguing that they should be permitted to charge a different price for higher speeds and service when moving content to the content consumer through their infrastructure. They note that Internet service is a finite resource, as with any commodity. High-bandwidth content, such as VoIP, digital music/ movies, and IPTV, use a greater percentage of that resource, so it should command a higher rate. In return for the higher rate, the content would get priority over less demanding content. …