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What is Network Neutrality?

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  • Written By: John Lister
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 02 August 2017
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2017
    Conjecture Corporation
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Network neutrality is the principle that all forms of Internet data should be treated equally in terms of transmission. Many people believe network neutrality is a key principle of the way the Internet works, and government agencies in some countries consider it a policy aim. Attempts to enforce the principle in the United States have created disputes about the legal authority that particular agencies have to regulate Internet providers.

The basis of network neutrality is that an Internet provider, such as a cable company, should not give priority to any one set of data over another. This can cover both the format of the data, such as online video or web pages; the means of transmission, such as peer-to-peer filesharing or newsgroups; and the content itself, such as a football news site or an audio file of an album. In most cases, even the keenest net neutrality advocates agree that the principle does not override legal issues relating to the content meaning; for example, it wouldn't be considered a breach of the principle to block access to a child pornography site in a country where such material is illegal.

Most definitions of net neutrality relate to the content rather than the end users. The principle allows for a company to limit the total amount of data users receive, or the speed at which they receive it, and to offer different limits and speeds to users who pay different rates. It would be considered a breach of the principle to place a limit that only applied to a particular type of content.

Advocates of net neutrality argue that the Internet should be a "dumb pipe" that doesn't discriminate between different data. They argue that this allows everyone an equal chance to have their voice heard and for the best content to gain the largest audience. Critics of net neutrality argue that the concept means large Internet content producers such as online video groups do not pay a fair share of the costs of getting their content to users.

The legal status of net neutrality in the United States came into question after Comcast was found to have deliberately slowed down data sent via peer-to-peer messaging. The Federal Communications Commission ruled that although it was acceptable to slow down all traffic to a particular customer to manage network demand, it was a breach of network neutrality to target a particular type of content in this way. The FCC believed it was government policy to enforce network neutrality in this way.

A subsequent appeal by Comcast led to a court ruling that under current law, the FCC did not have the power to enforce such a policy. This ruling did not relate to the network neutrality principle itself, but rather the regulatory powers of the FCC over Internet companies. As of 2010, the FCC, Congress and Internet industry representatives were debating the issue and aiming to clarify the regulatory position.

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