The Illusion of Net Neutrality

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Do you think that there should be universal access to the internet, regardless of how it is accessed? Should the internet be regulated by the federal government? If so, to what extent? Is “Net Neutrality” possible? For now, “neutrality” when it comes to accessing the internet is an illusion.

These questions, to some degree, have been addressed by the approval of new rules by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) today. Below are some key things to consider:

Excerpted from an NPR story today:

A divided FCC has approved new rules meant to prohibit broadband companies from interfering with Internet traffic flowing to their customers.

The 3-2 vote Tuesday marks a major victory for FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, who has spent more than a year trying to craft a compromise.

Known as “net neutrality,” the rules prohibit phone and cable companies from favoring or discriminating against Internet content and services, such as those from rivals.
The rules require broadband providers to let subscribers access all legal online content, applications and services over their wired networks – including online calling services, Internet video and other Web applications that compete with their core businesses. But the rules give broadband providers flexibility to manage data on their systems to deal with problems such as network congestion and unwanted traffic including spam as long as they publicly disclose their network management practices.
The regulations prohibit unreasonable network discrimination {my emphasis}- a category that FCC officials say would most likely include services that favor traffic from the broadband providers themselves or traffic from business partners that can pay for priority.

“Today, for the first time, we are adopting rules to preserve basic Internet values,” Genachowski said. “For the first time, we’ll have enforceable rules of the road to preserve Internet freedom and openness.”

They also worry that the rules don’t do enough to ensure that broadband providers cannot favor their own traffic or the traffic of business partners that can pay for priority – resulting in a two-tiered Internet.

The FCC has also launched the National Broadband Plan. What are the implications in light of the new “net neutrality” rules? Here are some thoughts:

As new technologies mature to become a basic service to the public, there have always been haves and have-nots. One hundred years ago, the telephone could be found in only wealthier homes, but today it would be unimaginable for a household to be denied such basic communication.

According to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, three out of four adults have internet access in the US. But the “digital divide” remains: internet access is significantly lower for low income households, minorities and the elderly. How we access the internet has rapidly transitioned from dial-up connections to broadband, whether using cable or DSL. That these two technologies compete for customers, rather than companies using a shared platform have slowed progress towards universal access.

Is universal internet access a basic service, a moral and social imperative? The FCC apparently believes it is, by launching the ambitious National Broadband Plan to support high speed access to more than 100 million households by 2020, backed by a budget of $15.5 billion. With such a large investment from our government to support the necessary infrastructure, a goal of universal access may be attainable. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) seems to agree as well, having articulated a goal towards a global “knowledge society” based upon open access to information.

While the “digital divide” still exists, broadband costs are inexpensive in the US compared to other countries, averaging less than 0.5% of income. This is in sharp contrast to India and China, where access can cost between 5 and 10% of income.

Broadband_Connections.JPGView full sizeTechnology Review, used with permission

The Global Broadband Spectrum by Matt Mahoney

Image used with permission by author Matt Mahoney (Technology Review published by MIT)

Consider the global landscape portrayed in the “Graphiti” above. The horizontal measures how many people subscribe to broadband services, ranging from 0.1 per 100 inhabitants, to universal access. Tracing vertically, you can see faster speeds from 0.3 Mb/sec to 40 Mb/sec a circle at the extreme upper right hand corner represents universal access at high speeds. To give you an idea of the speed of information transfer, you could download a DVD-quality movie in about ten minutes if your connection were at 50 Mb/sec.

Of course, the speed of information transfer offers far more than convenient entertainment. It could benefit teaching and ultimately our economy. Schools in poor districts with insufficient funds to provide required texts could become transformed if students had open access to the internet, since many educational materials are available at no cost. Given a laptop with a wireless connection, the potential for a child’s education is vastly improved. Programs such as One Laptop Per Child are devoted to this goal for developing countries, for a cost of only $199 per laptop. Why not use such programs for the US? Open access to information could become a great equalizer, opening up better education at less cost, preparing students for our future workforce regardless of local school budgets.

Looking at this “Graphiti”, you can see right away that access and speed of the broadband spectrum in the US is well behind South Korea, Japan and Scandinavia, boosted by large public and private corporate investments. Yes, the cost is higher in these regions. The FCC’s National Broadband Plan could make the US more competitive in this digital race.

Can broadband access benefit the economy and improve job opportunities? While this question is still being debated, a study at MIT and the Brookings Institute concluded that for each percentage point increase in broadband access, an employment increase of 0.2 to 0.3 percent results. If this correlation holds true a 10% increase in access would translate into a 2 to 3% increase in employment – the FCC’s plan would indeed improve job opportunities and benefit the economy.

A version of this article was originally published in OpEdNews.


  1. #1 BaisBlackfingers
    December 22, 2010

    While internet access equality is an interesting and important justice issue, failure to reach internet equality does not excuse failure to provide neutral networks. Network neutrality and internet access equality are not unrelated, but it is a semantic error to say that one is an illusion simply because the other has never been true.

    Net neutrality simply argues that network providers have no right to block, slow, or deprioritize traffic based on the content, network of origin or author. It bears an implicit ceteris paribus condition that the data involved from all parties originates and is carried by hardware that meets the technical requirements of utilizing equal network priority (i.e., limiting the network resources given to a dial-up customer to the capacity of their dial-up connection does not violate net neutrality, irrespective of if that customer has physical and/or economic access to broadband).

    And that sort of neutrality is no illusion. Back in ye olde days when telecommunication meant picking up the phone, our telecom networks were neutral as a matter of law. This fact improved our national infrastructure and provided consumers with a better product. It has worked in the past, and there is no physical barrier to it happening again.

  2. i only skimmed, but my mentally dyslexic reactions:
    entertainment is perpetually attractive.
    digital video is the biggest current data type (it drives high b/w subscriptions and hdd sales).
    i remember when optimized jpgs were an internet luxury.
    at current costs, educational material is cheap.

    oplc, hacktivism, etc. Only hours ago, i came across “Random Hacks of Kindness”. there’s a lot happening scattered across the net. i haven’t searched for “low cost educational tech”, but i expect a directory somewhere has a nice list.

  3. #3 A
    December 22, 2010

    “Illusion of Net Neutrality” indeed.
    In the post several related, but different things are mixed up. There is ‘Net Neutrality’ and there is access to the internet, and speed of the internet.
    Net Neutrality means that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) cannot discriminate on the kind of content transported by their network; if a subscriber pays for certain level of service (so many Mb/sec) he should get it, no matter if he watches a movie or reads the Amnesty International web site. ISPs have of course figured out that certain content providers make a profit from their content, and want to get their share beyond that they get that those watching movies e.g. probably want to subscribe to their better service.
    So that is why they want to propose a tiered service, where the best tier is reserved to those content providers who pay them. So if e.g. Yahoo pays your ISP, the Yahoo search page will load fast, but Google will load slowly. You can be sure, that the lower tiers of service will soon be useless. Clearly then, your choice of what you see on the web will soon become limited (and no foreign web site provider might want to pay to even big US ISPs, so forget about reading foreign newspapers on the web). So the US, without net neutrality, might have no government censorship of the ‘net like the People’s Republic of China has, but what you can read here would be soon limited in practice.
    (How long are you willing to wait for a foreign web site, or your favorite blog to load?) With TV and the media in the US already controlled by a handful of large corporation, the internet allowed many new and small content providers (e.g. blogs) to florish; that time may be over soon. Note that the opponents of ‘Net Neutrality’ are the same companies who assured that the US has slower and more expensive network access than, e.g. Korea.
    For more information see
    and comments on the new regulations:
    (I am not associated with either of these organizations, but think they do great work).
    Regarding: “the rules give broadband providers flexibility …. as long as they publicly disclose their network management practices.” Yea, the same rules also reqire them to clearly disclose their tarriffs, and do you understand what you actually pay for to your ISP, or (cell)phone company? (The publicly filed ‘tarriffs’ are typically very high, and most people get some rebate, which runs out after 6 months, and every phone company’s or ISP’s teaser rate is clearly lower than the filed rate of all the others, mixed with other services, making comparisons in price impossible. And anyway, is there more than one ISP in your area? Where I live [Silicon Valley!] I have the choice of exactly two, with almost identical rates; none of this competition business they always talk about. And speed is slow, and service sometimes interrupted [even if shortly, enough to log you off a VPN computer at work] ).

  4. #4 Jeff
    December 22, 2010

    Thank you for your very informative comment. I believe that each of these issues impact on universal access to the internet and that a two-tiered system, referred to by one expert as “fast lane/slow lane” will continue the ongoing digital divide. I wonder these technologies can one day converge into a seamless system for information access.

  5. #5 A
    December 22, 2010

    Thanks, Jeff, for your kind words.–
    For more comment on the decision, see:

    My point is that the loss of ‘Net Neutrality’ does not just affect access to the internet, but what content is available there. If scienceblogs does not pay for first-tier access to Comcast, e.g., how many readers among Comcast subscribers do you think you’ll keep if your blog takes a minute and a half to load for them? And forget about wikileaks or anything politically controversial. ‘Deep inspection’ of the bits flowing through an ISP’s network to allow the ISP to assign it to the fast track or slow lane of its segment is a first step to allow censorship. Comcast has used such inspection already to block file-sharing peer-to-peer traffic ( ), claiming network congestion (actually, that’s an excuse to deliver slower service than promised), presumably copyrighted material will be next, and as they are at it, which patriotic ISP would allow access to wikileaks? Absence of ‘Net Neutrality’ will make the internet into a version of cable TV, with 1000 channels trying to sell you something or offering mindless entertainment, and certainly no space for something allowing feedback by common citizens/readers like this blog. I hope that scienceblog management recognizes that the loss of network neutrality means the loss of their business (unless they planned for a buy-out from Comcast;
    but Comcast-should it be interested – could probably buy scienceblogs for cheap, once its readership dwindled by being part of the slow lane).
    Sorry for this rant. But if we don’t act to keep ‘net neutrality,’ perhaps this time -when we could easily access a huge number of blogs with different opinions, foreign news sources with different perspectives, and could provide feedback ourselves – this time might become a memory of a time past, and the internet become like cable TV with a ‘Buy now’ button. And would we be really helped if we overcame the ‘digital divide’ and everybody would have access to cable TV?

  6. #6 A
    December 22, 2010

    Calling an absence of ‘Net Neutrality’ a first step to censorship is no exaggeration; it has already been taken:
    See: ‘T-Mobile Claims Right to Censor Text Messages’
    and with the FCC order not requiring ‘Net Neutrality’ for wireless services, it is now legal (to censor).

    Senator Al Franken’s Comment on the FCC ruling:

  7. #7 Name
    December 23, 2010

    The US is a corporate dictatorship.

  8. #8 janie
    January 3, 2011

    without net neutrality would it not affect digital divide?

  9. #9 Jeff
    January 3, 2011

    Absolutely! This is precisely my concern.

  10. #10 Ralph
    January 4, 2011

    This was just a matter of time. Commercialism was bound to win

  11. #11 snatur
    February 3, 2011

    Thanks for the post, do you have any other similar related posts?

  12. #12 Sesli Sohbet
    February 4, 2011

    Absence of ‘Net Neutrality’ will make the internet into a version of cable TV, with 1000 channels trying to sell you something or offering mindless entertainment, and certainly no space for something allowing feedback by common citizens/readers like this blog.

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