Summary and Keywords
Internet neutrality—usually net(work) neutrality—encompasses the idea that all data packets that circulate on the Internet should be treated equally, without discriminating between users, types of content, platforms, sites, applications, equipment, or modes of communication. The debate about this normative principle revolves around the Internet as a set of distribution channels and how and by whom these channels can be used to control communication. The controversy was spurred by advancements in technology, the increased usage of bandwidth-intensive services, and changing economic interests of Internet service providers. Internet service providers are not only important technical but also central economic actors in the management of the Internet’s architecture. They seek to increase revenue, to recover sizable infrastructure upgrades, and expand their business model. This has consequences for the net neutrality principle, for individual users and corporate content providers. In the case of Internet service providers becoming content providers themselves, net neutrality proponents fear that providers may exclude competitor content, distribute it poorly and more slowly, and require competitors to pay for using high-speed networks. Net neutrality is not only a debate on infrastructure business models that is carried out in economic expert circles. On the contrary, and despite its technical character, it has become an issue in the public debate and an issue that is framed not only in economic but also in political and social terms. The main dividing line in the debate is whether net neutrality regulation is necessary or not and what scope net neutrality obligations should have. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States passed new net neutrality rules in 2015 and strengthened its legal underpinning regarding the regulation of Internet service providers (ISPs). With the Telecoms Single Market Regulation, for the first time there will be a European Union–wide legislation for net neutrality, but not recent dilution of requirements. From a communication studies perspective, Internet neutrality is an issue because it relates to a number of topics addressed in communication research, including communication rights, diversity of media ownership, media distribution, user control, and consumer protection. The connection between legal and economic bodies of research, dominating net neutrality literature, and communication studies is largely underexplored. The study of net neutrality would benefit from such a linkage.
The term Internet neutrality encompasses the idea that all data packets that circulate on the Internet should be treated equally, without discrimination between users, types of content, platforms, sites, applications, equipment, or modes of communication. Usually this idea is referred to as “net(work) neutrality.” For at least a decade, net neutrality has been playing a central role in communication policy debates in the United States, where it also emerged. Increasingly, it has become an issue in Europe and other parts of the world (Vogelsang, 2010, p. 5).
The debate about this normative principle revolves around the Internet as a set of distribution channels and how and by whom these channels can be used to control communication—in other words, how the network can be used to discriminate and prevent access to the World Wide Web as well as to the multitude of applications that run on the Internet. Net neutrality has triggered many politicized and polarized debates. Proponents of Internet neutrality express fears that without regulation, content and user behavior can be controlled by network operators through hardware transmission technologies (the so-called physical layer of the Internet) as well as through the “code” layer of the Internet (the software, for instance, through monitoring and filtering technologies). Opponents on the other side of the debate argue that regulatory intervention would discourage investments in broadband networks and stifle innovation and traffic management (Powell & Cooper, 2011, p. 311).
Net neutrality is an issue about the very foundations of the Internet, about technical matters. The term “Internet” encompasses a global system of interconnected telecommunications networks and all the different layers that make them operational. Today the Internet is often identified with the many applications that run on our mobile devices. If those are indeed the primary access points to multiple services (social networking, email, e-commerce, gaming, and access to audio and video content), they are in fact building upon the Internet’s “lower layers.” In particular, they are building upon the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which defines how data packets are transmitted, addressed, and received. The basis of the “network of networks” is a layered model, and the transport of information is a common foundation on top of which several services (often hidden to the user) are developed: from the Web and its multiple applications to television and voice over IP, peer-to-peer exchanges, the Domain Name System (DNS), software updates, and numerous other services (Löblich & Musiani, 2014, pp. 342–343).
Net neutrality is, however, a debate about more than technical matters. This is evidenced by a broad range of actors who are involved in the debate, coming from telecommunications, Internet business, the state, Internet engineering, civil society, scholars, the media, and other sectors of society. These actors have pursued diverse and in several regards related economic, political, and social interests and have advanced their own definitions of net neutrality in different policy arenas, creating a complex and sometimes confusing field of discussion (Hart, 2011). From a communication studies perspective, net neutrality is an issue because it relates to a number of topics addressed in communication research, including communication rights, diversity of media ownership, media distribution, user control, and consumer protection. Despite its technical character, the debate on net neutrality has consequences for users and content providers, be they bloggers, media organizations, or social networking sites. It underlines the issue of access to communication networks and the conditions under which the circulation of information and opinions takes place via the Internet. The debate about the neutrality of the Internet affects the normative foundations of media systems in liberal democracies: freedom of expression, freedom of the media, free flow of information, and pluralism (Blevins & Barrow, 2009, p. 41; Blevins & Shade, 2010, p. 1; Marsden, 2010, p. 1).
The neutrality principle is not new in communication policy but has a certain tradition in the regulation of distribution channels for different mass media. The regulation of press distribution in Germany, for instance, contains the neutrality principle: apart from newspaper delivery through subscription-based services (which account for a large part of press distribution), newspapers are supplied by wholesale operators. Germany is divided into areas in which only one press wholesaler in each area delivers newspapers and journals to retailers (with the exception of a few areas where two wholesaler share the business). These regional monopolies are tolerated because the press wholesalers have forced themselves to distribute the products of all publishing houses in a non-discriminatory way and under conditions that are the same for all publishing houses (Beck, 2012, p. 128). The principle to treat all programs equally and in a non-discriminatory way also has been a concern in broadcasting distribution, where the issue has been to regulate the condition under which television producers gain access to distribution outlets such as cable and satellite. Like in the debate about the distribution of services via the Internet, a special focus has been placed on conduit system owners who are also engaged in the content business and who, at least theoretically, have an interest to favoring their own content (Marsden, 2010, p. 18). Network neutrality advocates have concerns that ISPs have both the incentive and ability to harm competitors and consumers by creating costly Internet fast lanes and inferior, lower-cost slow lanes.
Developments that Spurred the Debate
The net neutrality debate can first be understood against the general background of the fundamental changes the Internet has undergone, having become the central nervous system in more and more parts of the world. There are more than 2 billion Internet users now, and these users are central actors in the Internet value chain, both as content producers and participants in many services whose economic value and social usefulness increases with the number of people using them. With computer networking industries, data centers, content industries, social networking, electronic commerce service companies, the telecommunication sector, and even companies providing the energy needed to materially run computing equipment, entire industry branches participate in the shaping of the Internet. This evolution of the network and its global economic value have made the Internet a heavyweight in economic as well as political relations (Löblich & Musiani, 2014, p. 342).
Second, the controversy about Internet neutrality was spurred by at least three specific developments: (1) advancements in technology, (2) the increased usage of bandwidth-intensive services in terms of switching, routing, downloading capacity and transmission speed, and (3) changing economic interests of Internet access providers.
New network traffic management tools enable the prioritization and blocking of data packages based on the type of content and source. There is consensus that traffic management, and thus a breach of net neutrality, is necessary to fight spam or distributed denial of service attacks and that it can reduce congestion. But some proponents of net neutrality worry that network management tools used by ISPs can throttle content that competes with their own in order to protect their market power (or even their monopoly). However, often applied because of technical necessity, several network management techniques and pricing strategies have breached net neutrality in recent years. Most participants in the debate agree that networks have needed some management in the past and will definitely need management in the future. Therefore, the radical concept of net neutrality, according to which all packets of information, regardless of the source and recipient, should be treated equally, has been questioned. The core question in the Internet neutrality debate is therefore how to distinguish between “acceptable” and “bad” forms of discrimination and whether this question should be left to the different Internet operators and to the commercial negotiations between them or if regulatory measures are needed to preserve neutrality as much as possible (Clark, 2007; Stevenson & Clement, 2010).
The use of bandwidth intensive applications and services has increased—for instance, video download and streaming. These activities have led to discussion about traffic congestion and how the quality of service for full-motion video can be guaranteed. Traffic management is also carried out for the quality of services that carry time-sensitive content requiring instantaneous, “real-time,” delivery. In contrast to content that just needs to get there as soon as possible (email), time-sensitive content is dependent on immediate transmission of bitstreams (such as video, voice over IP) (Clark, 2007, p. 705; Van Eijk, 2013, p. 524). Therefore, some authors argue that traffic management can benefit content providers and consumers by making the flow of traffic more balanced or smoother (Yoo, 2013, p. 542). Corporate content providers have made quality of service one of their priorities in order to prevent network overload at times of peak usage. Google has built its own infrastructure of server farms and fiber-optic networks in order to store content and get it more quickly to end users (Levy, 2012). Traffic management techniques applied to guarantee the quality of this content also affect, however, all other content.
Internet service providers provide the structure that allows users to access content and services distributed on the different large servers of the Internet. ISPs are driven by and are drivers themselves of the two just-mentioned developments. Providing access to and data transmission over the Internet, ISPs have to handle the increasing dependency of all sectors of society on their network, and they have to manage the traffic of ever-new and ever-more-bandwidth–requiring applications, services, and content, perpetually developed by an expanding and competitive online industry. ISPs are drivers themselves in that they have technical capabilities at their disposal to condition Internet traffic patterns. In some cases, the same advances in technology that allow for a better user experience, such as Deep Packet Inspection (DPI; packet filtering techniques examining the data and the header of a packet as it passes a network inspection point), traffic management systems, next-generation networks, and “intelligent” network functions, are those that enable prioritization and blocking of data packets based on the type of content (Peha, Lehr, & Wilkie, 2007, p. 710; Yoo, 2013). ISPs therefore have a lot of responsibility and a lot of power. As economic enterprises, they are also drivers seeking to increase revenue and expand their business model (meaning the way these enterprises earn their money).
The Role of Internet Service Providers
ISPs are important actors in the management of the Internet’s architecture, not only technical but also economic. Their commercial strategies have emphasized that customers can enjoy the full benefits of a ubiquitous Internet: high bandwidth access at home, at the office, and on the mobile phone, all offering the same quality of services with the ability to access even the information that is most bandwidth intensive, such as streaming videos, games, and real-time delivered information. Users are often offered bundled services that merge their access to different types of services like television, communication, and music consumption. Due to the growing number of Internet users, the technical development and the dynamic market of applications and content, the business models related to the Internet as well as the distribution of revenue seem to reconfigure the business relations and the scope for negotiation between ISPs, on one hand, and content and application providers, on the other hand. ISPs seek to (re)negotiate the sharing of the value produced by and within the network. The crucial question is the recovery of costs. In these negotiations, ISPs argue that in order to keep pace with innovation and data volume, they need to endlessly improve the quality of networks by expanding bandwidth and switching capability. This entails large, ongoing, and sizable investments that incur the risk to rapidly become outdated. Along the same lines, ISPs have expressed fear that net neutrality regulation would stifle investment in broadband expansion. They tried to reframe the net neutrality discussion as a debate about the financing of the Internet’s infrastructure and claim that they bear the cost of network upgrades without any opportunity to share profits from the content they carry, yet these improvements are strictly linked to the exponentially growing number of connections and applications that mostly benefit other actors. They refer to the financial success of some of the companies whose activities are carried out exclusively on the Internet, for example, Google, Amazon, and Facebook. Their success is framed by ISPs as a reason that this thriving sector should pay more for access and thereby participate in the telecoms’ investment efforts. This dynamic has led to contentious private commercial negotiations between ISPs and content creators and distributors, such as Netflix. ISPs, able to throttle the speed quality of access to services, are in a privileged position to negotiate with content producers about the extent to which such contents can be routed more or less rapidly and about the price a prioritization of certain services would have. Around this crucial point plays the issue of net neutrality (Löblich & Musiani, 2014, pp. 344–345). If the “transporter” can identify the type of protocol used for every information packet and apply specific rules according to its source, it becomes the central actor in the value chain, able to impose its models and interests on customers (Krämer, Wiewiorra, & Weinhardt, 2013).
Critics fear a similar model, derived from the cable TV industry, where cable providers charge a fee to program producers who need access to the user. Particularly for new media businesses and non-commercial services, such as citizens’ media and blogs, this would be a burden. Large company customers such as the mentioned heavyweight Internet companies, might be an exception, deploying their power in the services and content market in order to negotiate free or profitable access. As a result, both large content providers and ISPs could easily circumvent the principle of net neutrality. Smaller content providers with less contracting power are forced to pay more or less what the Internet service provider charges (Marsden, 2010, pp. 18, 101; Maekeler, 2015, p. 128). In the view of some economists, however, prioritization should be allowed as long as it is based on fair and objective criteria and does not hinder competitors (Vogelsang, 2010, pp. 5–6). They have also argued that the producers of the “next generation of online video” (such as Apple, Google, Vongo, and Sony) “need assurance that contracting for higher service quality with access providers will be legal” (Hahn & Litan, 2007, p. 605).
ISPs also express the wish to not remain confined to a role of conduit provider for content and service companies while being the ones that assume the financial risks and the need to prevent traffic delivery congestion. They intend to become or are already content providers through vertical integration achieved mainly via mergers and acquisitions (e.g., Verizon’s $1.4. billion acquisition of AOL). The net neutrality debate is part of the problem that has arisen with the interaction of content and networks. Economists have emphasized the complementary relation between content and networks because of positive network effects. The demand for Internet access and data transmission increases with increasing supply of content. At the same time, the demand for content increases with increasing supply of networks. As a result, revenue can be maximized through integrating both services under one roof. Therefore, in the view of a large ISP, it can make sense to become a vertically integrated telecommunication and content company. As past mergers have shown, however, compatibility problems between the different cultures of content and network companies could occur. This supposedly was the case in the failed merger of AOL and Time Warner (Vogelsang, 2010, p. 8). In Germany, Deutsche Telekom stopped it plans to favor its own video service T-Entertain after protests and court decision. The incumbent telecommunication company had planned to throttle the speed of Internet connections after reaching a certain data volume. The data transmitted via T-Entertain would have been exempted from this practice (Spiegel Online, 2013). Even if many scholars agree that deviations from network neutrality do not necessarily harm users and competitors, they generally acknowledge that in situations where ISPs become content providers, they may be motivated to implement network management techniques in order to discriminate against competitors. Providers may exclude competitor content, distribute it poorly, and require competitors to pay for using high-speed networks (Marsden, 2010, pp. 30, 55; Van Eijk, 2013, p. 10).
Internet Neutrality as a Political and a Public Debate
Net neutrality is not only a debate on infrastructure business models that is carried out in economic expert circles. On the contrary, and despite its technical character, it has become an issue in the public debate and an issue that is framed not only in economic but also in political and social terms. The respective roles and responsibilities of actors around and within the network, the necessity for regulatory guarantees, the relation between online communication and political processes are subjects of that controversy. The main dividing line in the debate is whether net neutrality regulation is necessary or not and what scope net neutrality obligations should have. In the United States, between 2005 and 2010 five distinct themes were identified: (1) how net neutrality should be defined, (2) the importance of net neutrality for democracy and free speech, (3) the relation between innovation, investment, and net neutrality, (4) whether the necessity for regulation can be derived from competition and market forces, and (5) arguments about the technical and regulatory history of the Internet that employed in support of or in opposition to net neutrality (Powell & Cooper, 2011, p. 316).
From a communication studies perspective, it is relevant to elaborate on the second theme, importance of net neutrality for democracy and free speech. Filtering techniques, for instance Deep Packet Inspection, are one concern in this regard, which has implications not only for net neutrality but also for a range of other Internet policy issues such as privacy and copyright. DPI may be implemented for a variety of reasons, including the search for protocol noncompliance, virus, spam, and intrusions (Bendrath & Mueller, 2011; Mueller & Asghari, 2012). Even though DPI has been used for traffic management for many years, it has been framed in a predominantly negative way: its employment, especially if bent to the requirements of political actors, may lead to biases in online communications, blockings, or censorship of the content of online communications (Blevins & Barrow, 2009; Elkin-Koren, 2006). The directive to shape traffic has often come from governments because filtering techniques may be used by authorities as an investigation tool. ISPs are then sometimes used as the “sheriffs” of the Internet, because they are placed in the position of enforcing the rules of the regime in which they are doing business (Palfrey & Rogoyski, 2006). The use of these measures is also attributed to security purposes such as to fight against terrorism, child pornography, and online piracy (with all the controversies this raises in terms of setting critical precedents) or to protect largely shared values such as the protection of minors or the fight against hate speech. Whereas some authors and activists view not only the first but also the second set of motivations as inadequate justifications for the invasion of freedom of speech rights, others have emphasized that the employment of filtering techniques is bound to specific cultures: blocking of content sometimes takes place in specific cultural contexts in which it is regarded to be harmful to the public or to some segment of the public, as is the case of hate speech (Marsden, 2010; Palfrey & Rogoyski, 2006, p. 33).
A variety of actors have become involved in the normative debate and tried to frame the issue according to their interests. Net neutrality activists have pushed the topic, arguing for legislation mandating open access, fearing ISPs’ capacity to control, discriminate, or block certain types of content. Political party interests are split. Their policies would have to be treated for different countries separately, however, liberal and left-wing parties tend to support net neutrality legislation, whereas conservatives are skeptical about or even oppose such a guarantee. ISPs and telecommunication equipment manufacturers have opposed net neutrality regulation for the reasons mentioned above. Internet content and applications industries, who are perceived to benefit from such legislation, have sided with lobbyists for free speech (Hart, 2011, p. 418; Powell & Cooper, 2011, pp. 315–318). However, Internet-based companies and ISPs are not as clearly divided today. In 2010, Google and the American network operator Verizon discussed the prices that the search engine enterprise would have to pay to the operator for “preferential treatment” given to the videos of Google’s subsidiary YouTube (Verizon-Google, 2010). Moreover, Google teamed up with Verizon to argue that “most network neutrality rules should not apply to cellular networks.” Google had previously been very much in favor of net neutrality, and now, a few years later, it has presented itself again as a supporter of a “free and open Internet” (Brodkin, 2014).
Especially in the United States, the protest of civil society has played an important role in putting net neutrality on the media agenda and sensitizing policymakers to the issue (Powell & Cooper, 2011, p. 311). A range of different public and interest groups has been engaged over the years in supporting net neutrality. The spectrum covered diverse organizations, such as media liberty groups engaged for the institutional change of the communication system, the Christian Coalition of America, Gun Owners of America, and the American Library Association. The Save the Internet coalition, run by the not-for-profit group Free Press, advocated for legal protection of net neutrality (Hart, 2011, pp. 425–427; Löblich, 2015). In 2006, the coalition collected over 1 million signatures to an online petition to Congress. Intense public interest also accompanied the drafting of the current net neutrality rules in the United States. Over 4 million public comments were sent to the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) (Brodkin, 2015). Public interest in Europe is less than on the other side of the Atlantic and does not comprise such a diversity of organizations. Grassroots mobilization is younger and has responded primarily to proposed legislation in the past. The reasons for the many more different constituencies that have become engaged in the issue in the United States might be that the telecommunications market in Europe is more competitive and there is less vertical integration than in the United States (with certain differences between the national markets). Also, there is more funding for advocacy, especially for civil society organizations (Powell & Cooper, 2011, p. 323; Vogelsang, 2010, p. 6).
Contributions to the net neutrality debate have been made through and by the media, in political arenas, before courts, and on the World Wide Web. Particularly in the United States, attention has been paid by journalists since the beginning of the debate, and the mainstream press provided an important platform for the debate. However, in communication policy debates, media companies have often been not just a neutral platform but also actors that are concerned by the issue at stake. Being content producers, they pursue their own interests in the contentions about Internet neutrality and have amplified specific arguments related to net neutrality (Powell & Cooper, 2011, pp. 311–312; Quail & Larabie, 2010).
Net Neutrality Regulation in the United States and the European Union
The debate about how the Internet is controlled and by whom also pertains to nation-states, as not only national stakeholders address their demands to government but net neutrality, in a larger sense, confronts nation-states with the definition of the role they should play in the shaping of the Internet. It raises questions about the future of communication regulation, government intervention, and who should be involved in developing rules for the Internet.
Governments and national authorities as well as regulatory bodies in the communication sector are reforming law and discuss regulatory approaches concerning net neutrality. Having launched consultations, they are often left with conflicting demands that have to be balanced. In some countries, this balancing of interests has prevented legislative steps or led to vague requirements; in others, however, it has led to laws protecting the principle of net neutrality. In Europe, there are two countries so far that have codified net neutrality in law: the Netherlands and Slovenia. Chile was the first country in the world that enacted such a law, and other countries in Latin and South America have followed with similar laws (Farivar, 2013).
Given that its net neutrality debate already has a history that goes back to the 1990s when the issue was called “open access” (Wu, 2003), the United States is certainly a point of reference for other countries discussing network neutrality protections. In 2005, the FCC released an Internet Policy Statement. It encompassed four principles in support of an open Internet: freedom to access content, freedom to use applications, freedom to attach personal devices, and freedom to obtain service plan information. The policy statement, however, did not have the force of rule or regulations and therefore lacked enforceability. Earlier, the FCC had reclassified digital subscriber line services as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act, which had the consequence that common carrier rules no longer applied to ISPs. This decision also entailed a weak legal underpinning for the authority regarding net neutrality protections. The Democratic Party made a commitment to net neutrality during the 2008 election campaign. To deliver on these promises, the Obama administration supported a rulemaking proposal that was made by the FCC in 2009 (FCC, 2009; Hart, 2011, p. 434). This proposal drafted rules and encompassed six principles: four principles were taken over from the FCC’s earlier Internet Policy Statement (FCC, 2005), and two principles were added: non-discrimination and transparency. There were exceptions for mobile broadband access providers. After more than a year of meetings, hearings, and complicated negotiations with the Internet industry, the FCC adopted rules, which went into effect in 2011. They banned content blocking and required transparency from ISPs. Rules also required reasonable network management and packet discrimination. Wireless broadband was exempted from all but the transparency and blocking principles. Specialized services were allowed (FCC, 2009, 2010). The rulemaking process was accompanied by fights over the authority of the FCC. A court decision in 2010 ruled that the FCC exceeded its authority to regulate Internet service providers. Another lawsuit, for that reason, struck down most of the rules in 2014. In 2015, the FCC enacted new net neutrality rules and strengthened its legal underpinning by reclassifying fixed and mobile broadband again as telecommunication service. Internet service providers are now regulated as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, before they were regulated under Title I. The new rules go beyond the rules passed in 2010, applying equally to mobile and fixed broadband. The provisions prevent Internet providers from blocking legal content or throttling traffic. They also prohibit paid prioritization of Web service in exchange for payment. The transparency principle requires that network operators disclose management practices. There are exceptions for reasonable network management and certain services that are not transported via the public Internet (medical data transmission, voice over IP). Observers assess the new rules to be a strong net neutrality protection (Brodkin, 2015) but criticize the fact that zero rating is not strictly prohibited but ruled on a case-by-case basis: those ISPs that offer zero rating plans “exempt certain content from monthly data caps” (Brodkin, 2016). Critics such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation fear that (1) content providers that are zero rated are unfairly advantaged compared to other content providers or market entrants, (2) ISPs that zero rate their own content have a similarly unfair advantage compared to competing ISPs that do not practice zero rating, and (3) zero rating limits the user experience of the open Internet by tying them to content provided for free (Malcolm, McSherry, & Walsh, 2016).
In the European Union (EU), between 2007 and 2009, the Regulatory Framework for Electronic Communications, the European directives regulating the telecommunications sector, was reviewed (European Union, 2009a). The framework had been adopted in 2002 in order to open up the telecommunication market within the EU (2002a, b). In 2007, the European Commission entered into the negotiations about this so-called Telecoms Package with the stance that it considered prioritization generally “to be beneficial for the market so long as users have choice to access the transmission capabilities and the services they want” (European Commission, 2007). The final version of the “Access Directive” was considered by proponents of net neutrality to contain weak requirements and became the subject of controversy. There were no binding rules but some principles: ISPs were obliged to inform their customers about traffic management (transparency). The market would protect users if their ISPs would too strongly restrict single services such as filesharing and voice over IP (meaning that if consumers were unsatisfied they could switch to another provider). Furthermore, national regulators were allowed to establish additional minimum requirements for the quality of services, for instance, to avoid congestion. The directive did not ban bandwidth throttling and interfere with certain types of traffic as long as ISPs provided minimum levels of service and did not prevent consumers from switching to another provider (European Union, 2009b).
After a series of consultations, reports, and declarations, the European Commission proposed in 2013 the Telecoms Single Market Regulation. Most member states of the European Union had not enshrined Internet neutrality in law by then. Unlike a directive, a EU regulation is a binding legislative act. It must be applied by all member states, whereas a directive leaves room for member states to transpose it into their own law and to implement it. Regulations proposed by the European Commission need the European Parliament’s approval as well as the approval by the Council of the European Union (consisting of member state ministers). With the Telecoms Single Market Regulation, for the first time there will be European Union–wide legislation for net neutrality.
According to the Commission’s proposal for a Telecoms Single Market Regulation, Internet service providers were permitted to create Internet fast lanes: paid prioritizations of certain traffic. But a majority in the European Parliament voted against paid prioritizations and for stronger protections of net neutrality. Internet service providers should also not be allowed to block or slow services provided by competitors. Specialized services were only allowed under specifically defined conditions. The draft amended by the Parliament was sent to the Council. After complicated negotiations, the EU Commission, Council, and Parliament agreed on a compromise in 2015. According to this compromise, ISPs will be prevented from discriminating in Internet access. End-users will be “free to use the content of their choice” in the open Internet (European Commission, 2015). Proponents of net neutrality point out, however, that the text is ambiguous: the term “net neutrality” is not mentioned, and thus an explicit legal definition what net neutrality means is missing. Moreover, in the view of critics, regulation will create a two-tier Internet: the open Internet and accompanying specialized services. Whereas in the open Internet paid prioritization is banned, paid prioritization is permitted for some specialized services that require high-quality Internet access to function and run on the same network but are not open. Because Internet fast lanes would be allowed, they argue, net neutrality would be destroyed (Moody, 2015a, b). By the time of writing this article, the legislative procedure was not concluded, and even then the political controversy will certainly continue.
Scholarship on Internet neutrality has been largely U.S. scholarship, although there are increasingly more studies from and covering other parts of the world. Not surprisingly, research on Internet neutrality originated in the United States, where the political and public debate emerged. The term “network neutrality” is said to have been coined by Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia Law School (Wu, 2003).
A multidisciplinary field of research reflects the bundle of political, economic, and social issues related to the multifaceted and ambiguous concept of net neutrality. Several areas of research sometimes refer to each other and have divergent disciplinary backgrounds. Law and economics have contributed to a large part to the net neutrality literature. It is therefore not surprising that both in the United States and in Europe, legal and economic concerns have been key areas of scholarly interest. The primary issue is certainly whether a non-discrimination regulatory regime ensuring net neutrality is necessary. Although the legal community largely supports this idea, some parts of the economic community tend to be more skeptical: this community has reframed the debate, asking under what conditions price and quality discrimination is beneficial or harmful (Atkinson, 2011). Other research contributions elaborate on principles seen as conducive for the further development of the Internet, propose regulatory models, and attempt to strengthen market power, competition, and network diversity. Apart from this policy focus, which is typical for many U.S.-centered publications, the literature includes a number of comparative and transnational studies, political process studies, and media discourse studies. The latter group addresses topics such as the role of knowledge and experts, agenda setting and denial, framing, and citizen views (Löblich & Musiani, 2014, p. 350).
Scholarly discourse is in part linked with political discourse. Net neutrality contentions have been shaping academic research and academic research has been informing political and public discourse (Kim, Chung, & Kim, 2011). Moreover, there are personal connections between the academic sphere and other spheres of society involved in net neutrality debates in the United States. Some scholars are personally connected to regulatory authorities, Internet engineering groups, and to the telecommunication industry that sometimes sponsors their research, often without disclosure. Some held positions there prior to their academic career. Others are supporting civil advocacy groups, or they explicitly link activism and research (Löblich & Musiani, 2014, pp. 349–350).
Disciplines, such as law and economics, have played a more active role in the net neutrality debate than communication studies. Some issues, such as the effects of mass media distribution on freedom of speech, on the diversity of media content, and on access for content providers, as well as user control, digital inclusion, and the diversity of media ownership were under consideration by communication scholars under different labels before the term net neutrality became so prominent. Their connection with the net neutrality debate is largely underexplored. The study of net neutrality would benefit from disclosure of any financial sponsorship from stakeholders as well as a more effective linkage between legal and economic literature and the body of research in communication studies, even if this research often does not explicitly refer to net neutrality.
Scholarly contributions to the net neutrality debate can be found via scholarly databases and library catalogs. It should be noted that some databases are limited to articles and exclude books. But books play an important role in disciplines such as law studies, which is one of the main academic disciplines contributing to the study of net neutrality. The search for literature, furthermore, should not be restricted to authors who explicitly use the net neutrality label. Many of the issues relevant to the net neutrality debate are explored under headings and themes in the literature that do not employ this label. This is especially relevant for projects that aim at connections between different bodies of research.
A further source are the technology and computing news and information media, such as Ars Technica for the United States or Heise for Germany. They not only provide information about network infrastructure and business, they also cover developments in Internet policy and legislation and are a good source for information about current debates and decisions.
Mass media are both a platform (indicating to what extent Internet neutrality has become an issue in the public sphere of a country) and an actor in the public debate about net neutrality (indicating how content providers affected by potential net neutrality infringements try to shape the discussion).
There is a lack of infrastructural data for scholars who wish to become more deeply involved with technical infrastructure data. Network operators are not interested in making their own data publicly accessible, and regulatory authorities have not yet produced much reliable data. The lack of data has had the consequence that some scholars (and other actors) claim that evidence for net neutrality threats are lacking. Within policy proceedings, however, documents containing technical details are sometimes made available by regulatory authorities or governments. The same applies to civil advocacy organizations, which sometimes get access to data. Using such documents, however, always means being aware of the interests their authors pursue, which affect the selection of content in a document.
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