Net Neutrality 1/Illustration by iStock .com/Gawrav Sinha Net Neutrality 1 Illustration by iStock .com/Gawrav Sinha

In the epic battle between giant corporations and pirates of digital media, the latter faction has struck a severe blow with the help of regulators at the FCC. Bureaucrats soon will pen regulations that will keep the Internet free forever from -- well, regulation. Meanwhile, Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and AT&T will slink back to their caves to bemoan their inability to further mine profit from customers.

Such a description of the network neutrality debate is clearly a gross oversimplification of what's in reality a complex problem. If you listen to net neutrality advocates, ISPs are described as aspiring digital gatekeepers out to wring every last cent from innocent consumers. ISPs, on the other hand, have had a terrible time crafting a countermessage -- their best attempt has been claiming that they want only to reinvest profit into building more broadband.

Net neutrality is an important issue, as it may well determine the future of the Web. And with the FCC's October 2009 notice of proposed rulemaking regarding network neutrality regulation, it would seem the grass-roots activists have defeated their corporate adversaries. Although there aren't any written rules yet, some worry the federal government is claiming power it doesn't possess to regulate the Internet in a manner that's far worse than what Time Warner or AT&T would even consider.

Choose Your Master

The core of net neutrality is the notion that no one should be "in charge" of the Internet, yet its advocates have gravitated toward the idea of endorsing some sort of government regulation to ensure neutrality. That very concept, however, is counter to network neutrality. In a perfect -- and perhaps improbable -- world, the Internet would regulate itself.

"There are two entities we want to keep their hands off the Internet," said Jennifer Granick, civil liberties director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit digital rights advocacy. "One is broadband providers and the other is the government. We're in a situation where no one wants broadband providers to discriminate and tell consumers what content they can receive and what applications they can run. But no one wants the FCC to do that either."

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Chad Vander Veen  | 

Chad Vander Veen previously served as the editor of FutureStructure, and the associate editor of Government Technology and Public CIO magazines.