How Washington’s ‘net neutrality’ debate matters for Internet users

Friday, May 7, 2010

What the ‘net neutrality’ debate means

One reason the Federal Communications Commission is changing the way it regulates broadband is so that it can apply a principle called network neutrality. Net neutrality, as it’s known, is the idea that the Internet should be like roads and highways — generally open to all traffic.

President Barack Obama and FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski want Internet service providers to have similar requirements. That means the companies should not be allowed to block, hinder or otherwise discriminate against certain data traffic — even if the traffic, such as video files, use up a lot of network capacity. It also means broadband providers should not be allowed to favor their own traffic or the traffic of companies that pay for priority. Web companies such as Google and Skype strongly support net neutrality.

Internet service providers, however, question whether the road analogy should apply to their lines, which carry e-mails, Web pages and other Internet data into homes and businesses. These companies say that after spending billions of dollars on their networks, they should be allowed to manage Internet traffic. They want the freedom to prevent certain applications from hogging capacity. And they want to be able to create premium services such as those that might let a Web company pay for priority on the networks.

There haven’t been many known instances of Internet service providers hindering Web traffic that they don’t like. One case came when Comcast Corp. interfered with a service called BitTorrent, which lets people swap movies and other big files over the Internet. Advocates of net neutrality say that showed how an Internet service provider that also sells cable TV service could degrade a service that competed with its core business.

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