The End-to-End Principle

One of the most basic arguments in favor of Net Neutrality is that it is needed in order to preserve what is known as the "end-to-end principle." The end-to-end principle is one of the underlying system principles of the Internet, which states that network features should be implemented as close to the end points of the network -- the applications -- as possible. This is commonly expressed by describing the system as a "dumb" network with "smart" terminals. Lawrence Lessig and Robert W. McChesney argue that the end-to-end principle is what has made the Internet such a success, since "All of the intelligence is held by producers and users, not the networks that connect them."

Without enforcing Net Neutrality, much of the control over the Internet is transferred to ISPs, meaning that much of this intelligence is transferred to the network, which violates the end-to-end principle. Specifically, this is because ISPs would be allowed to break the modularity of the "layered" networking model. These layers correspond to a range of network services from how to physically send bytes from one machine to another at the lowest layer to the representation of application data at the highest layer. The traditional model for these networking layers is known as the OSI model, which consists of 7 layers. ISPs are most concerned with "layer 3," which is known as the "network layer." The purpose of the network layer is to transparently route a packet from a source machine to a destination machine, and this is almost always done via Internet Protocol (IP). Thus, the task of an ISP is to help route packets from a source IP address to a destination IP address. The layers above IP in the OSI model deal with higher-level aspects of networking, such as delivering data to and from specific processes on machines (Layer 4 -- the Transport Layer, which includes protocols such as TCP and UDP), or representing data for certain types of applications (Layer 7 -- the Application Layer, which includes HTTP). For an ISP to do its job -- transporting data from one machine to another -- it generally only needs to the data encapsulated in Layer 3 and below. However, without Net Neutrality, ISPs would often be tempted to make decisions based on information in the higher layers. For example, ISPs could route HTTP traffic differently from FTP traffic, and this information could only be ascertained by looking at Layer 7. Doing this goes outside the bounds of an ISP's job of handling the Network Layer, and thus breaks the modularity of the OSI model.

Internet Gatekeepers

Lessig and McChesney argue that without Net Neutrality, the Internet would become like Cable TV. That is, the Internet would be controlled by a few very large companies who would be free to decide how much service should cost and what content users have access to. They argue that "By extorting protection money from every Web site -- from the smallest blogger to Google -- network owners would earn huge profits. Meanwhile, they could slow or even block the Web sites and services of their competitors or those who refuse to pay up." Essentially, this means that ISPs could stand between content providers and users and charge tolls.

Vinton Cerf, one of the creators of Internet Protocol, echoes this concern, arguing that even as it is, "Both ends essentially pay for access to the Internet system, and so the providers of access get compensated by users at each end." ISPs should not be able to "Step in the middle and create a toll road to limit customers' ability to get access to services of their choice even though they have paid for access to the network in the first place." This practice of "double-dipping" by ISPs -- charging for access at both the consumer and producer ends of the pipe -- concerns proponents of Net Neutrality, since without restrictions, ISPs would be able to essentially act as what Lessig and McChesney call "content gatekeepers."

Practical Problems

Allowing ISPs to become these so-called "Internet gatekeepers" would be problematic for both users and for content providers.

End Users

One of the principal fears of proponents of Net Neutrality is that for users, the "black-box" effect of the Internet would not exist without Net Neutrality. Users could no longer type in a URL, click on a link, do a Google search, or watch a YouTube video and expect everything to just work. Instead, users might have to be wary of how their ISPs choose to handle traffic from particular web sites or applications, or how they choose to route packets of particular protocols. To make matters worse, ISP practices would not be transparent, and the users may not even know about what their ISPs' policies are. This creates a fragmented web experience for users. Furthermore, while a user may have quick access to web application at his home computer, his office might use a different ISP that might limit or even block traffic from that application. Also, depending on his ISP's policies regarding devices, the user might get good service to particular sites when using his desktop or laptop, but experience good service to different sites when browsing on a tablet or smartphone, even while all of these devices are connected to the same access point!

Content Providers

Without Net Neutrality, content providers are also subjected to problems. ISPs could "allow" providers to pay extra for a "fast path" in order to get better Internet Service. While ISPs might view this as offering opportunities for better service, as mentioned previously, Lessig and McChesney would refer to this as extortion. While paying for better service might not be a huge problem for large companies like Google and Facebook, it would put smaller content providers at a huge disadvantage. While Google might be able to pay large sums of money for the fastest, best-quality Internet service, a new start-up with the search engine of the future might not be able to afford the fast path, which would make it essentially infeasible to compete with Google. Lessig and McChesney describe this as offering an "Express lane for deep-pocketed corporations and [relegating] everyone else to the digital equivalent of a winding dirt road." So although the large, Internet companies would have to pay fees as well, they are given a further advantage of smaller companies, which drives down competition. And of course, the ISPs get to have their pay day.