A discussion of divergent paths to unrestricted access
of content and applications via the Internet.
Point: Barbara van Schewick
IMagine SWitching on your
computer to try an exciting new
Internet application you heard
about. It does not work. You call
customer support, but they cannot help you. If you are like most users,
you give up. Maybe the application was
not so great after all. If you are technically sophisticated, you may run some
tests, only to find out your ISP is blocking the application. Welcome to the future without network neutrality rules.
illUstration by leander herzog
Most of us take the ability to use the
applications and content of our choice
for granted. To us, “Internet access”
means access to everything the Internet
has to offer, not access to a selection of
Internet applications and content approved by our ISP. This assumption was
justified in the past, when the Internet
was application-blind, making it impossible for ISPs such as AT&T, Earth-Link, or Comcast to interfere with the
applications and content running over
their network.a Today’s world is different: ISPs have access to sophisticated
technology that enables them to block
applications or content they do not
like, or degrade their performance by
slowing the delivery of the corresponding data packets.
Whether and how the law should
even among network neutrality proponents), a rule against blocking and
discrimination is at the core of all network neutrality proposals.b
But does a network provider really have an incentive to discriminate
against applications? Research shows
that while a network provider does not
generally have an incentive to exclude
applications or content, c there are cases
a The application-blindness of the Internet was
a consequence of its design, which was based
on the broad version of the end-to-end arguments.
react to this changed situation is the
subject of the network neutrality debate. Network neutrality proponents
argue that ISPs have incentives to use
this new technology, and that the existing laws in many countries do not sufficiently constrain the ISPs’ ability to do
so. Proponents contend that users, not
network providers should continue to
decide how they want to use the Internet if the Internet is to realize its full
potential and that the law should forbid ISPs to block applications and content or to discriminate against them.
While the debate does not end here (in
particular, whether a nondiscrimination rule should ban Quality of Service
or restrict ISPs’ ability to charge unaffiliated application or content providers for the right to offer their products
to the ISPs’ customers is controversial
b In some proposals, such a rule takes the form
of users’ rights to use the (lawful) applications
and (legal) content of their choice. There usually is an exception that allows network providers to block malicious applications and
content, such as those involved in denial-of-service attacks.
c More applications and content make the Internet more attractive, so network providers
generally have an incentive to foster, not exclude additional applications.
feBRuaRY 2009 | vol. 52 | No. 2 | CommunICatIons of the aCm