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Neutralizing the Net

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The term 'net neutrality' is unfamiliar to most people, even though it may affect their access to certain aspects of the internet. The underlying principle states that internet user access networks should support restriction-free content, websites, platforms, kinds of equipment that may be attached, and modes of communication. In other words, your internet service provider (Comcast, AT&T, Verizon, etc.) should not be able to restrict you from accessing content outside of their networks.

This has not been past practice. As it stands, internet providers can block websites and services from their competitors. This is primarily used as a marketing gimmick, allowing the company to promote its own interests among its current customers. Such providers argue that a nondiscrimination clause would prevent them from showing how their services differ from and are superior to those of their competitors.

Despite the controversy, net neutrality is moving forward. On August 9, 2010, CEOs from Google and Verizon Communications endorsed a proposal of net neutrality to policymakers. They further wish to expand the Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) proposed nondiscrimination clause of their regulatory effort by adding a new, enforceable prohibition against discriminatory practices. For the first time, internet providers will be strictly prohibited from discriminating against or even prioritizing their own content, applications, or services in any way that causes harm to users or competitors. Companies like Verizon, Google, and AT&T have agreed to live with these terms, but not at the expense of losing precious promotion opportunities. Rather than discriminating or prioritizing traffic on the public network, providers will partner with third parties to offer additional content on their services. Examples include healthcare monitoring, advanced educational services, and new entertainment and gaming services. Providers can continue to develop innovative and exciting features while keeping their internet services open.

The debate as to whether net neutrality constitutes consumer advocacy or an infringement on the free market continues. Ultimately though, the internet user benefits from expanded access to all content and services on every network. Third party services will further enhance the consumer's online capability. As net neutrality advances, a variety of options will follow.