- Maria LöblichMaria LöblichDepartment of Political and Social Sciences, Institute for Media and Communication Studies, Freie Universitat, Berlin
Internet neutrality—usually net(work) neutrality—encompasses the idea that all data packets that circulate on the Internet should be treated equally, without discriminating between users, types of content, platforms, sites, applications, equipment, or modes of communication. The debate about this normative principle revolves around the Internet as a set of distribution channels and how and by whom these channels can be used to control communication. The controversy was spurred by advancements in technology, the increased usage of bandwidth-intensive services, and changing economic interests of Internet service providers. Internet service providers are not only important technical but also central economic actors in the management of the Internet’s architecture. They seek to increase revenue, to recover sizable infrastructure upgrades, and expand their business model. This has consequences for the net neutrality principle, for individual users and corporate content providers. In the case of Internet service providers becoming content providers themselves, net neutrality proponents fear that providers may exclude competitor content, distribute it poorly and more slowly, and require competitors to pay for using high-speed networks. Net neutrality is not only a debate on infrastructure business models that is carried out in economic expert circles. On the contrary, and despite its technical character, it has become an issue in the public debate and an issue that is framed not only in economic but also in political and social terms. The main dividing line in the debate is whether net neutrality regulation is necessary or not and what scope net neutrality obligations should have. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the United States passed new net neutrality rules in 2015 and strengthened its legal underpinning regarding the regulation of Internet service providers (ISPs). With the Telecoms Single Market Regulation, for the first time there will be a European Union–wide legislation for net neutrality, but not recent dilution of requirements. From a communication studies perspective, Internet neutrality is an issue because it relates to a number of topics addressed in communication research, including communication rights, diversity of media ownership, media distribution, user control, and consumer protection. The connection between legal and economic bodies of research, dominating net neutrality literature, and communication studies is largely underexplored. The study of net neutrality would benefit from such a linkage.