President Barack Obama recently expressed himself on the question of net neutrality. He urged the Federal Communications Commission to follow the government’s plan to qualify it as a utility, which didn’t seem to please the Head of the agency, Tom Wheeler. But why did Obama’s intervention cause such a rumble?

Net neutrality


A sudden and recent interest for net neutrality throughout the medias
During the last months, net neutrality went from being a problem known by a rather restricted circle of specialists to being a hot topic for a wider range of public.
This sudden popularity for net neutrality can partly be explained by the recent speech delivered by the President of the United States, Barack Obama. Indeed, a few weeks ago, the President took a position about this question by pleading in favor of a neutral Internet, thus rejecting the eventuality of “Internet fast lanes”. Even though net neutrality was part of Barack Obama’s program during the 2008 US presidential campaign, it is not until quite recently that the debate became more active.
Net neutrality became a hot-topic for most internauts shortly after the humorist John Oliver vulgarized it in his show. It was then widely relayed by traditional medias and social networks.
Net neutrality in a nutshell
However, before examining what overviews are at stake for both parts of the discussion, it is necessary to quickly remind what exactly is net neutrality.
Its definition was consecrated in 2003 thanks to the work of Tim Wu, media law professor at Columbia University.
As it was very clearly resumed by a peer student from Berkeley working on the subject, net neutrality is a network design paradigm that argues for broadband network providers to be completely detached from what information is sent over their networks. In essence, it argues that no bit of information should be prioritized over another »
To put it even shorter, net neutrality implies an absence of discrimination from the Internet Service Provider (ISP) over the data’s provenance on the network.
For example, an ISP would not respect the principle of net neutrality if it decided to charge contents providers with additional fees in order for them to get more broadband.
Indeed, this situation would suppose a two-lanes Internet: in one hand a slow lane which would be the cheapest offer, with a limited broadband, and in the other hand a fast lane, which would be more expensive in exchange of an optimal broadband.
As a lot of content providers would only be able to afford the slow lane, their data would be discriminated compared to the users paying the fast lane offer. This would result in a disparity of data treatment motivated by economic reasons, bound to prevent the development of innovative contents and services.
Indeed, it can be inferred that only a minority of contents providers could afford the broadband necessary to their expansion, especially regarding the exponentially-growing number of internauts in the world. As a result, it is possible to suppose that already big and successful companies would grow even bigger and powerful to the detriment of small start ups trying to expand.
Such a situation would lead to the constitution of oligopolies in the concerned markets, giving said companies a position of super domination.
Today’s situation over net neutrality
The notion of net neutrality having been clarified, the aim of President Obama’s intervention must be reminded. Indeed, the head of the US executive was actually pressuring the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to establish rules in order to regulate the activity of ISPs in order to grant a neutral network by classifying the Internet as a utility, just like natural gas, water or electricity. As a consequence, the ISPs would be subject to a far more thorough control from the FCC.
The Head of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, seemed however frustrated by the White House’s plan for net neutrality, as he reportedly told a group of companies to be in favor of a more nuanced solution.
He also reminded that the FCC is an independent agency, which holds the final word in the regulation of communications.
Under these circumstances, a divergence between the government and the FCC could be an opportunity for the ISP lobby and the Republican opposition.
But how could a divergence over net neutrality in the US affect the rest of the world ?
Simply because the Internet is a set of interconnected IP networks run by Internet Service Providers. The ISPs are responsible for the maintenance and the improvement of these networks in order to ensure the proper transfer of the users’ packages from point A to point B.
Or, these networks have borders. Indeed, for example once the package exits a network run by an ISP, it enters another network run by a competitor.
To allow the package to reach its destination, ISPs conclude an agreement determining the conditions under which the interconnectivity between the networks is granted.
Though it can be based on the principle of Peering, with no financial counterpart for traffic, these agreements are generally a lucrative business.
Or, if net neutrality was to be abandoned in the USA, huge ISPs such as Verizon, AT&T or Comcast would very likely modify their interconnectivity agreements with other foreign ISPs in order to sustain and adapt the two-lanes internet model.
Furthermore, it could loosen the internationaly observed principle by which an information can be subject to a temporary discriminative treatment for technical network management considerations only.
Looking at the importance of the data flux coming in and out the US networks, there are reasons to believe that a non neutral internet model in the US would have consequences over the delivery quality of the world’s information.
The FCC will vote over the question of Net neutrality in February. Meanwhile, one can only wait and see…

Nicolas Babelon
Étudiant du Master 2 Droit et Gestion de l’économie numérique de l’Université de Strasbourg, je tâche de prendre la mesure d’un monde transformé par la grande révolution technologique que sont les TIC. Nouvelles techniques, nouveaux modèles économiques, nouveaux enjeux politiques et stratégiques, le numérique est en passe de devenir la locomotive à laquelle s’accrocheront les wagons de notre société contemporaine…


A propos de Nicolas BABELON