Here’s the Paper That Popularized Net Neutrality

Net neutrality might be done for. Here’s a look at where it came from

Photo: Mr_Stein

Earlier this week, a U.S. appeals court decided to do away net neutrality. Until now, net neutrality—the principle that internet service providers treat all data transmitted on the internet equal, regardless of its size, type or origin—was protected by federal rules. For ISPs, however, net neutrality meant the loss of potential income. Websites such as Google will now likely pay ISPs a premium to have speedier delivery, and individual data plans based on household data use may become a staple of monthly wireless bills.    

While the internet had operated along principles of net neutrality since it came into being, Columbia Univeristy law professor Tim Wu popularized the idea—and the term—in a 2003 breakout paper, "Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination." In it, Wu accurately predicts that the concept of net neutrality will soon stir up tensions, writing, "Communications regulators over the next decade will spend increasing time on conflicts between the private interests of broadband providers and the public’s interest in a competitive innovation environment centered on the Internet." He continues: 

The questions raised in discussions of open access and network neutrality are basic to both telecommunications and innovation policy. The promotion of network neutrality is no different than the challenge of promoting fair evolutionary competition in any privately owned environment, whether a telephone network, operating system, or even a retail store. Government regulation in such contexts invariably tries to help ensure that the short-term interests of the owner do not prevent the best products or applications becoming available to end-users. The same interest animates the promotion of network neutrality: preserving a Darwinian competition among every conceivable use of the Internet so that the only the best survive.

Wu goes on to consider the pros and cons of net neutrality and proposes that rules be designed to deal with the issues that would inevitably arise around the topic. 

Wu might have helped spark the net neutrality debate, but the issue, as he says himself, was likely inevitable. Similar debates have occurred in the past, beginning with the telegraph. Lines from the Pacific Telegraph Act of 1860, for example, could almost be used to describe the internet, at least up until this week's hearing: "Messages received from any individual, company, or corporation, or from any telegraph lines connecting with this line at either of its termini, shall be impartially transmitted in the order of their reception, excepting that the dispatches of the government shall have priority."  

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