Network Neutrality 101

There's a debate raging over the future of the Internet that could have a profound effect on the services Web surfers enjoy.

"Network neutrality" is the term commonly used to describe the battle between the telecom industry and a varied coalition of groups arguing over whether content providers should be able to pay in order for surfers to get faster access to their sites.

Part of the fear is that those who can afford to pay will thrive, while those who cannot won't survive.

The Evolving Internet

"The history of the Internet has been one of open access, one that has allowed many different voices to be heard," said Ross Rubin, an analyst with the NPD Group. "The concern is that offering ISPs [Internet service providers] this capability will lead to the squelching of many voices or a playing field that isn't level."

Because of that, the groups -- including strange bedfellows like Microsoft, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Christian Coalition of America -- are pushing for legislation to keep the Internet from becoming tiered, where service providers would have discretion over which sites came up faster than others and which sites didn't come up at all.

The telecom companies argue, however, that regulating the Internet would stifle creativity and competition, and lead to more legislation and a more restricted Internet.

"Regulatory or legislative solutions wholly without justification in marketplace activities would stifle, not enhance the Internet," Walter McCormick, head of the U.S. Telecom Association, said to the the Senate Commerce Committee in May.

Picking Sides

Companies like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast say that by keeping the government out of it, consumers would have the power to leave a provider who they felt was limiting access to certain sites. Competition would keep everyone honest.

On the other hand, the coalition argues that the telecom industry would be motivated to slow or even prevent access to sites critical of the provider or of companies affiliated with them.

"The assumption has been that they [telecom companies] would move very aggressively to reduce choice," said Rubin of the NPD Group.

Rubin's not convinced of that and doesn't see why there can't be options that are beneficial to both the consumer and the corporation.

He suggests that maybe consumers will be offered options like a "net neutrality" subscription where the company promises not to favor any sites, but perhaps forces the surfer to endure some advertising to offset the cost.

Or maybe an option that admits to favoring some sites over others, but costs significantly less or significantly more?

"I think a lot of the concern is reactionary, saying, 'This is not how the Internet grew up,'" he said. "But who knows how the Internet will evolve?"