Network neutrality -- the concept that the Internet should remain free and open to all comers -- has been a major public policy priority for Google over the last two years. But anyone who has followed the debate closely knows that one of the challenges raised by our opponents has been defining what exactly the term means. The fact is, net neutrality can mean different things to different people.

Last year Google and other members of the Open Internet Coalition played a big part in the congressional debate over net neutrality. Earlier this year, the FCC agreed to take a fresh look at the issue and seek public comments. We figured this would be a good opportunity to help clarify what we mean when we talk about net neutrality, so yesterday we filed these comments with the FCC. A few key points:

What's the problem?
Most Americans (99.6%, to be exact) receive broadband service from either their phone company or their cable company -- in antitrust terms, a duopoly. And far too many people have only one choice of broadband provider, or even none at all. While there are increased options for wireless Internet services, these "3G" services presently aren't nearly fast enough to deliver true high-speed services. That lack of broadband competition gives providers the market incentive and ability to discriminate against Web-based applications and content providers. In fact, economic analysis and real-world experience from the wireless market suggest that the problem will persist even if more competition eventually emerges. And broadband-based discrimination would violate the founding design principles of the "end-to-end" Internet: openness, transparency, and user choice and control.

What kind of behavior is okay?
There are a lot of misconceptions about which market practices Google and other net neutrality advocates consider "discriminatory," and therefore should be subject to regulation by the FCC. There is widespread agreement among all parties that outright blocking, impairing, or degrading Internet traffic should not be tolerated. Beyond that, we also believe that broadband carriers should have the flexibility to engage in a whole host of activities, including:
  • Prioritizing all applications of a certain general type, such as streaming video;
  • Managing their networks to, for example, block certain traffic based on IP address in order to prevent harmful denial of service (DOS) attacks, viruses or worms;
  • Employing certain upgrades, such as the use of local caching or private network backbone links;
  • Providing managed IP services and proprietary content (like IPTV); and
  • Charging consumers extra to receive higher speed or performance capacity broadband service.
The key point here is that these activities do not rely on the carrier's unilateral control over the last-mile connections to consumers, and also do not involve discriminatory intent.

What isn't okay?
If all these different activities are acceptable in Google's view, what should the broadband carriers not be allowed to do? The answer is those last-mile activities that would discriminate against certain Internet applications or content with an anticompetitive intent. These would include:
  • Levying surcharges on content providers that are not their retail customers;
  • Prioritizing data packet delivery based on the ownership or affiliation (the who) of the content, or the source or destination (the what) of the content; or
  • Building a new "fast lane" online that consigns Internet content and applications to a relatively slow, bandwidth-starved portion of the broadband connection.
What should be done?
In our filing with the FCC, we explained our strong support for the adoption of a national broadband strategy. That strategy should include (1) some incremental fixes (like requiring carriers to submit semiannual reports with broadband deployment data, and mandating that carriers provide clear and conspicuous terms of service to customers); (2) structural changes (various forms of network-based competition, such as interconnection, open access, municipal networks, and spectrum-based platforms); (3) a ban on most forms of packet discrimination; and (4) an effective enforcement regime. We also urged the FCC to take the next step in its oversight on net neutrality, by instituting a formal rulemaking proceeding to consider these ideas.

Without nondiscrimination safeguards that preserve an environment of network neutrality, the Internet could be shaped in ways that only serve the interests of broadband carriers, rather than U.S. consumers and Web entrepreneurs. As Craig Newmark of Craig's List puts it, “Imagine if you tried to order a pizza and the phone company said AT&T's preferred pizza vendor is Domino's. Press one to connect to Domino's now. If you would still like to order from your neighborhood pizzeria, please hold for three minutes while Domino's guaranteed orders are placed.”