To understand the debate over network neutrality on the Internet, it is useful to start with the adage "To not act is to act."
If the federal government does nothing—that is, if it does not adopt network neutrality rules—it will be allowing telephone and cable companies to block, degrade, or slow down any content on the Internet for any reason. Without such rules, the Internet will not live up to its full potential for fueling economic growth and serving as a vehicle for artistic, political, and social expression.
The Federal Communications Commission has proposed banning discrimination on the basis of the content, the kind of software being used, or the identity of the content provider. The policies also would require meaningful disclosure to consumers about the speed of service they are receiving and the management techniques used by Internet service providers on their networks. These are important steps to promote economic growth and diverse speech on the Internet.
I suspect the real difference underlying my disagreement with Barbara Esbin about network neutrality lies in our divergent views on whether government should proactively seek to promote competition and diversity through antitrust laws and guarantees of nondiscrimination. I count on government to protect us from abuses, and she regards such governmental involvement as oppressive.
Here is my side: Big broadband providers would like to change the Internet as we now know it. They want to be able to slow down or even block content for whatever reason they choose. They want to be able to keep such practices secret, too. Do we really want AT&T or Comcast selling Domino's Pizza the right to have its website always load faster than those of local independent pizzerias? What about blocking either pro-choice or pro-life websites or, for that matter, both of them? Right now, service providers are free to do so.
It wasn't always this way. In fact, if you ever used (or still use), a dial-up modem, you've had network neutrality enforced for you. Indeed, telephone companies are forbidden from discriminating against any Internet traffic over ordinary telephone lines. Because of—not in spite of—these policies, the "dial-up Internet" became a vibrant platform for commerce and free speech. Under this system, anyone with a computer and a telephone could set up a business, invent a new website function, and obtain access to a much wider array of goods and customer services than ever before—without worrying that the carrier had a secret deal to favor a competitor's website.
Network neutrality will ensure that the Internet continues to fuel growth and innovation for the American economy. The dynamism of the Internet has not come from large companies. Rather, it is the openness of the Internet that has enabled small start-ups with better ideas to gain access to everyone on the Internet on the same terms and conditions as every other user. It is no accident that Amazon.com, which revolutionized retailing, was created by a small entrepreneur; no such revolution would have been possible if Internet service providers favored big "incumbent" competitors such as Waldenbooks by selling them "priority access" and slowing down Amazon's connection. Today, small companies are devising ways to deliver television service over the Internet. Cable companies like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Cox have lucrative businesses selling cable TV service, and they might well want to make sure that these new competitors have a hard time delivering television service at a lower price or even free of charge.
The large carriers assure us that they have no such intentions, but without rules mandating disclosure of special deals, it is very difficult or impossible to detect such misconduct. Two years ago, when Comcast was caught secretly blocking certain kinds of data files, it first denied there was a problem and finally owned up to what it was doing only after the FCC was presented with conclusive evidence to the contrary.
There is no truth to the claim that network neutrality would somehow inhibit broadband deployment. Experience proves this. In 2006, as part of its decision authorizing AT&T to acquire BellSouth, the FCC required the merged company to observe network neutrality principles for two years. During that time, AT&T's investment actually increased, and it became the leading investor among all Internet service providers.
Network neutrality is not just good for the economy but also essential for democratic self-expression. Musicians and other artists have used the Internet to transform traditional distribution models; record companies no longer have a stranglehold on distribution. Political organizations and social action groups now organize on Facebook and Twitter and have decentralized and democratized fundraising on the Internet. Artistic, social, and political speech is generally afforded the highest degree of protection under the First Amendment, but we now face the prospect of private censorship from Internet service providers. Network neutrality will preclude interference with protected speech and thereby fulfill the Founding Fathers' intention that there be a vibrant marketplace of ideas so that educated citizens can make wise decisions at the ballot box.
It is important to stress that network neutrality protects only lawful content. Internet service providers will always be able to enforce prohibitions on pirated material and unlawful obscenity. Emergency services for first responders can also be given priority. Network neutrality also gives service providers adequate flexibility for intelligent and reasonable management of their network systems.
In short, network neutrality is about your freedom to use the full potential of the Internet for commercial, political, artistic, and social expression. We need it, and that is why the FCC needs to act on its proposal. Not to do so would be an unfortunate action.