Journalism in the Public Interest

The Net Neutrality Spat Explained


FCC chairman Julius Genachowski testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on April 14, 2010, in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

In recent weeks, top officials from the Federal Communications Commission have held closed-door meetings to negotiate with the country’s biggest communications companies and online service providers on how the Internet should be regulated. In a statement today, the FCC said it had called off those talks, saying the effort "has been productive on several fronts, but has not generated a robust framework to preserve the openness and freedom of the Internet."

At stake is the principle of net neutrality — the idea that Internet service providers must treat all traffic equally, and not privilege certain content by giving it more, or less, bandwidth — a principle that the FCC has been more aggressive about implementing under the Obama administration.

Here’s how Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, has explained net neutrality, as reported in the Guardian:

Google defines net neutrality in the following way: if you have a content category like video we want to make sure that the operator does not favour one video [provider] over another because that would then allow the operator to pick winners in the category," he said. "Imagine a situation where the operator also owned a TV network and discriminated in favour of that TV programming against the other choices. That would not be seen as fair.

Google has historically come out in favor of net neutrality. That puts it in opposition with big cable and Internet companies like Verizon and AT&T, which would wield a great deal of power — and could stand to gain payments from content providers who want their content delivered more quickly than competitors' — if the government’s efforts to regulate and protect net neutrality are weakened.

So when The New York Times reported today that — separate from the FCC’s negotiations — Google and Verizon were nearing a deal that “could allow Verizon to speed some online content to Internet users more quickly if the content’s creators are willing to pay for the privilege,” it lit some corners of the Internet on fire with indignation.

Though Google’s public policy team said over Twitter that the Times piece was wrong, The Wall Street Journal put out a similar piece — also citing anonymous sources. Bloomberg has come out reporting that the deal would apply only to Internet use on mobile phones. Following the news of a Google-Verizon deal, the FCC broke off the private meetings it had been conducting with the communications and online content companies, announcing they had not been able to reach a compromise. No Google-Verizon deal has officially been announced.

Whatever the case, it’s worth noting that in recent months, these companies have not been holding back on their lobbying cash on this issue and others.

Tech blog Ars Technica pointed out that Verizon has outspent its competitors lately, spending more than $4.4 million on lobbying in the second quarter of this year — more than triple what it spent in the same time last year. On the whole, cable and Internet companies opposing net neutrality seem to be spending significantly more than the content providers, which also have a lot at stake:

AT&T spent $3,086,786.27 on lobbying in Q2, about $30,000 more than it did in the second quarter of 2009. Of late, Comcast dispersed $3,820,000 in green love to various causes dear to the cable giants' heart. And Time Warner Cable spent $1,440,000.

And don't forget about the companies that provide online content. Google budgeted $1,340,000 for lobbying in Q2, Amazon set aside $500,000, slightly less than Yahoo!'s $550,000, and Microsoft had $1,850,000 on hand for the task.

As we noted, many of these broadband companies turned their backs on stimulus money last fall, afraid that the funds would come with strings attached when it came to net neutrality.

The debate over Net Neutrality often misses the most important factor here: the consumer.

ISPs tend to use the argument that content providers are using ISP-owned networks to deliver content and should pay for the privilege of doing so. However, no one seems to be pointing out that consumers are already subsidizing the delivery of content through their over-priced monthly service fees.

If, as a consumer, I want to watch YouTube videos, I am paying for the right to receive those videos (and other content) at the highest speeds my service plan allows. Should YouTube downloads be slower for me than other content if Google refuses to pay what amounts to extortion money? Should both Google and I have to pay to have the same content delivered to me at a reasonable speed?

The real issue, though, is that American Internet Service Providers are shamefully lagging behind nations like Japan and South Korea, both of which have exponentially faster Internet speeds at a fraction of the cost Americans pay for sub-par service. If bandwidth capabilities in this country were sufficient, net neutrality would only be an issue for stockholders looking to maximize profits (and I’m not convinced this isn’t the heart of the issue already).

Has everyone conveniently forgotten that ISPs’ “owned” networks were build with huge federal and local government subsidies?  That “their tubes” were given free passes over public and private land which would otherwise cost gazillions of dollars in lease fees?

Verizon/AT&T/etc. don’t own the internet, they provide a commodity.  And just like any commodity (electricity, gas, water, telephone) should be carefully regulated to ensure the consumers get the service they are paying for, that they are not being ripped off, and that there is healthy competition from smaller providers.

Of course this is a purely philosophical discussion, since the big 4 in the wireless industry will simply buy all the GOP senators to block any meaningful regulation attempts, just like the Big oil and the Wall Street banks did.  Good bye Net Neutrality, we barely knew you.

We’ve already crossed this bridge.  “Treat like apps alike” authorizes the end of net neutrality and kills innovation.  This is what was wrong with the original legislative proposals.

The general purpose nature of the platform for end user innovation is what we want.  That’s what net neutrality is, that’s where it comes from.


Network neutrality is what happens when competing autonomous routers interoperate according to the Internet Protocol in order to support whatever applications end users may come up with.  NN is just a natural side effect.  The incumbents are trying to do something else, create “managed channels” which are optimized for particular applications.

Also see:

Jamie,  I totally agree with your write. Perhaps if the salaries paid to the Verizon-AT&T were at 1990 levels, then we might see the faster bandwidth as in other countries. At the rate it’s going today, if & when the increased bandwidth is available, then the charge will be $200.00 a month or more.

“Treat like apps alike” authorizes the end of net neutrality and kills innovation.  We’ve already crossed this bridge.  This is what was wrong with the initial legislative proposals.


Net neutrality is the outcome of competing autonomous routers interoperating according to the Internet Protocol to provide global connectivity and a flexible general purpose platform for innovation by end users.  Net neutrality is a natural result of the Internet Protocol.

The general purpose nature of the platform for end user innovation is what we want.  That’s what net neutrality is, that’s where it comes from.

Also see:

Leslie Parsley

Aug. 6, 2010, 2:21 p.m.

Another scam by the big corporations to make money and screw the consumer.

JAMIE well said.

The consumers initially paid for the research that allowed the Internet to emerge. We pay, as you said, for shameless advertising.

My worst fear is a movement towards fierce regulation both by our Gov’t as well as internet providers the content I wish to access.

I am usually successful at avoiding the blasts of advertisements on a rendered page. Now they are using blind links that pop-up an ad or launches a new page.

The advertiser should get the message we are not reading your ads. You are wasting your time and marketing dollars.

Should a Google type service arrive on the scene who derives its dollars from only the consumer, no ads allowed,  this would be worth while.

Of course stripping all those ads from the NYT, Wahington post etc. would be challenging.

yup and thanks Jamie.

Stuart Levine

Aug. 6, 2010, 4:22 p.m.

Eric Schmidt’s comment that “if you have a content category like video we want to make sure that the operator does not favour one video [provider] over another because that would then allow the operator to pick winners in the category,” is simply a misstatement of the principle of net neutrality.  All applications, regardless of the type of application, should be allowed full bandwidth capability.  If a category of applications (e.g., video) were limited in their bandwidth capacity, their competitors (in this case, the cable TV suppliers) would have a competitive advantage.  Since the two largest internet providers are also re-sellers of content via cable (and, in the case of Comcast, producers of content), they have an incentive to discriminate against whole categories, such as video, since by so doing they shackle potential competitors.

I have been an activist in every major cause for 55 of my 70 years on earth, and by this you can set your watch: once a hard-fought freedom is lost, surrendered through ignorance or sheer indifference, it can virtually never be re-gained short of at the end of the barrel of a gun.

The technology of the Internet has given us an un-rivalled First Ammendment bully pulpit.  Abandon it, and it’s gone.

If Google wants to make a deal with Vrizon, let them. Let any content provider do it, let them pay for it. Just one regulation needed: THE NAMES MUST BE PUBLICIZED AND THE CONTENT MUST CARRY A LARGE WARNING THAT IT HAS BEEN DELIVERED FASTER DUE TO THE DEAL.


Net neutrality will be restored and maintained in a very short order and in a very effective way.

Sean Lawlor Nelson

Aug. 8, 2010, 4:19 a.m.

Look, I don’t mean to be unfairly critical; None of us are on the ball all the time, but I don’t think this is a very good article.
      I read it because I liked the headline, especially the word: “explained.”  I wanted to hear the details of what net neutrality is so I could develop a position on it.  I know that, in the quote, you provided some info… but that’s grossly insufficient, especially for the skeptical reader. Political details and controversy are very boring when they’re not accompanied by substantive information.

Mr. Walker, wake up sir.  With all due respect, we never boycotted gasoline, not even when prices reached extortion levels, why do you think the complacency in this country would be put on hold for one righteous issue?  Ah, but it would be nice, with that I do agree.
Also note that the ISP’s successfully put analog TV out of biz to give them more broadband width, albeit well needed but with a master plan already set, I am sure.
Point is, we are becoming needful of the net and therefore we will have to pay just as we have had to pay for everything we “need.” 
And to answer before it is asked, it will be taxed as well.  The oncoming storm is unavoidable.  Our best move is to enact laws that dedicated the monies like we do lottery: for senior citizens.  Here, lets dedicate the money from internet profits or taxes to…say… something trival like or halth care.

Whis is this issue relegated to the blogosphere, some cable news ( very little) and virtually no mainstream (corporate) media coverage. Isn’t that indication enough of what is happening here.
I unfortunately disagree with Peter Walker that enough of us might boycott the content which offends. The majority of internet users will simply pay if they can, and put up with whatever addtional hassle is thrust upon them.

It remains to be seen whether or not the Internet users will go along with the “perhaps” loss of net neutrality. This smacks of what all the other grabs are about. Bail out everything at taxpayers expense. So, if the Republicans yell that anything that is raised in costs, outside of Defense/War, is a tax increase, then so too are the proposals to increase the for profit corporations increasing revenue, without expenditures of up-grading their delivery system. Face it, the taxpayer has helped subsidize in one way or another all that we take for granted today, yet the Corporations reap the profits, which we still have to pay for through ever increasing rates. I’m afraid that until all the corruption is removed from Government, that includes every part of it, from the top down, then we just have to bend over an take it. Revolution anyone?

I agree with Chahk Noir’s comments.  The communications act Congress passed in 1996 contained clear understanding that ISPs would have generous incentives to expand bandwidth and coverage on an equal and neutral footing.  So much for “clear understandings.”

The problem as I see it is. If a company like Comcast can sell speed to certain content providers it can also slow down content from competitors. So even if we did boycott a site, the competitor would be so slow that everyone would give up long before any results were reached. For example comcast could slow down all video except hulu which it owns. Anyone who uses comcast would just end up watching hulu and nothing else. Goodbye u-tube.
That is what they want to do. They want to eliminate competition and sell us what they own. IF we lose net neutrality it will be the end of the internet as we know it now. It will become a clone of TV. there will be very limited content disguised as many choices.

I thinks the law passed in 1996 is surely become extinct. Greed is the driving force. As you are aware the scuttle butt that Google will have at least a two tier offering and you will have to pay for higher speed is probably true. Google has denied thus far that is not true but it will come to do it. Our dear elected will not hold their feet to the fire on this one.

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