Net Neutrality Explained
Net neutrality is and will continue to be one of the most important but overlooked political issues. Jack Balkin offers the best concise explanation of the issue that I have seen.
The goal of network neutrality is to keep digital networks open for many different kinds of content and for many different types of applications and services that people may devise in the future. Put another way, the goal of network neutrality is to ensure that the Internet, as much as possible, remains a general purpose data transport system through which many different kinds of content, services, and applications can flow.
What does the debate about network neutrality have to do with the First Amendment? Under current doctrine, the First Amendment doesn’t really say much about network neutrality one way or the other. And yet whether network providers can discriminate against content, sites and applications touches on important free speech values. Vast numbers of Americans now communicate with each other through broadband access; and we can expect that the percentage of communication through these digital networks will only increase over time. Network providers offer an indispensable service to the general public that makes much public (and private) communication possible. If network providers could discriminate against content and services flowing through their networks, they would be the most powerful censors in America. And since we live in what is effectively a cable-phone duopoly for broadband services, market competition would not necessarily counteract this censorship.
And why it's important:
But the debate over network neutrality is about more than whether network providers can discriminate against certain types of content or services. In most cases large corporations won’t discriminate against communications because of their politics or their moral tone (although there have been a few well publicized exceptions, like Verizon's recent attempt to block short text messaging services from NARAL). Rather, most network discrimination will be for economic reasons—to favor business partners and protect incumbent business models.
Thus, the debate over network neutrality is really about the best way to spur competition and promote innovation. Defenders of network neutrality rules argue that digital networks will generate more useful applications in the future—and thus help people generate and distribute more information—if digital networks remain as neutral as possible between different kinds of content and applications.
If you want to promote the growth of new kinds of information services, including services we haven’t even imagined yet, it’s important to keep networks non-discriminatory rather than built to favor the current businesses that network providers are aligned with.