Why the Open Internet Is Worth Saving

Evgeny_morozov_36.2_web Evgeny Morozov in The Boston Review:

In 2003 Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School, published an article on the once-sleepy subject of telecommunications policy. In it, he coined the term “net neutrality” to capture the idea that network operators—the Comcasts and Verizons of the world—should not be in the business of regulating the information traffic that passes through their networks. The term took hold, and the article launched Wu to cyber-rock-star status.

Net neutrality is a simple idea with powerful implications. A neutral net would, for example, prevent cable providers from slowing down their customers’ connections or, worse, banning them from running certain services. That is good for customers, who get equal treatment whether they are streaming movies on Netflix, chatting on Skype, or shopping on Amazon. And it is also good for Netflix, Skype, and other companies that have grown using an Internet infrastructure they do not own and have been able to innovate without worrying about shifting rules of the road.

With those credentials, net neutrality seems like a winning policy. But what about the network operators? They are not so happy with net neutrality, and it is easy to see why. If they respect net neutrality, they cannot impose special burdens on consumers who occupy lots of bandwidth by running data-intensive applications during periods of peak use. Nor can they ban Internet services that compete with their own offerings of cable TV or telephony, thus denying them a lucrative source of revenue. The result may be an underinvestment in infrastructure improvement, which is not good for Netflix and Skype, which depend on fast and ever-improving networks. Predictably, then, network operators prefer that the government not tell them how to run their networks and embrace industry self-regulation instead.

Despite this potential conflict between service and network providers, things have worked out pretty well so far. So even as battles over net neutrality have heated up over the past year—with important rulings from the Washington, D.C. Federal Court of Appeals and the FCC, and Verizon’s appeal of new FCC regulations—opponents often ask: why pass laws or regulations ensuring neutrality if we are doing all right without them?