Net neutrality (also network neutrality or Internet neutrality) is the principle that Internet service providers and governments should treat all data on the Internet equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication. The term was coined by Columbia media law professor Tim Wu.
There has been extensive debate about whether net neutrality should be required by law. Since the early 2000s, advocates of net neutrality and associated rules have raised concerns about the ability of broadband providers to use their last mile infrastructure to block Internet applications and content (e.g. websites, services, and protocols), and even block out competitors. (The term “net neutrality” didn’t come into popular use until several years later, however.) The possibility of regulations designed to mandate the neutrality of the Internet has been subject to fierce debate, especially in the United States.
Neutrality proponents claim that telecom companies seek to impose a tiered service model in order to control the pipeline and thereby remove competition, create artificial scarcity, and oblige subscribers to buy their otherwise uncompetitive services. Many believe net neutrality to be primarily important as a preservation of current freedoms. Vinton Cerf, considered a “father of the Internet” and co-inventor of the Internet Protocol, as well as Tim Berners-Lee, creator of the Web, and many others have spoken out in favor of net neutrality.
Opponents of net neutrality claim that broadband service providers have no plans to block content or degrade network performance. Despite this claim, there has been a single case where an Internet service provider, Comcast, intentionally slowed peer-to-peer (P2P) communications. Still other companies have begun to use deep packet inspection to discriminate against P2P, FTP, and online games, instituting a cell-phone style billing system of overages, free-to-telecom “value added” services, and bundling. Critics of net neutrality also argue that data discrimination of some kinds, particularly to guarantee quality of service, is not problematic, but is actually highly desirable. Bob Kahn, co-inventor of the Internet Protocol, has called the term net neutrality a “slogan” and states that he opposes establishing it, but he admits that he is against the fragmentation of the net whenever this becomes excluding to other participants. Opponents of net neutrality regulation also argue that the best solution to discrimination by broadband providers is to encourage greater competition among such providers, which is currently limited in many areas.