The physical layer of the Internet is owned by a tight cabal of powerful corporations that includes behemoths like AT&T and Verizon Communications. During the 1990s, when most Internet users logged on through telephone lines, the U.S. government declared that the companies that controlled this physical layer could not control the types of technologies that connected to their lines. This allowed modems, rather than telephones, to connect computer users to the growing Internet.
This guarantee of neutrality diminished with the rise of broadband Internet access, which is controlled by an entirely different set of government rules. In an attempt to re-level the playing field, the Federal Communications Commission established a set of Net neutrality rules, which mandate that the companies controlling the physical layer of the Internet may not block access to devices, nor may they throttle access speeds as they please.
As you may already know, the FCC’s Net neutrality rules — established under the ethos of “preserving the open Internet” — have come under intense fire. The broadband industry argues that the FCC has no jurisdiction over the broadband Internet, and therefore; its Net neutrality rules are invalid.
But it is not just companies like Verizon going after Net neutrality; some of the same people who claim to fight for the “open Internet” also say that the FCC’s rules are unconstitutional, since Congress has not yet awarded the agency the power to impose such rules. The anti-neutrality crowd mostly includes libertarian groups, like TechFreedom, The Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute, as well as politicians like Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and his father, Rep. Ron Paul.
In their eyes, “Internet freedom” means allowing businesses to do as they please with the Web — free market, unabated by government regulation. This “open Internet” philosophy, while more clear cut, often opposes the “open Internet” philosophy espoused by the FCC and Internet evangelists, like TCP/IP creator Vint Cerf, who sees government regulation as a positive force when it is used to protect citizens’ from fettered access to the Internet.
This disagreement over the definition of the “open Internet” came into full view recently with the publication of two versions of a “Declaration of Internet Freedom.” The first version, proposed by a group of more than 90 organizations that includes Free Press, Mozilla, the ACLU, and the Center for Democracy and Technology, cited “universal access to fast and affordable networks” as one of its five primary principles. On the same day, TechFreedom and The Competitive Enterprise released their own “Declaration of Internet Freedom,” and criticized the former for “enshrining particular consumer preferences.”
So even those who claim to fight for the “open Internet” can’t agree what that ideal means. The lines between these two factions were blurred during the fight over SOPA and PIPA because everyone (aside from the entertainment industry) agreed that the legislation was bad for the Internet ecosystem, businesses and users included. But new battles, like the fight over Net neutrality, expose the cracks in the “open Internet” movement