Network Neutrality: What a Non-Discrimination Rule Should Look Like

Networks, the Internet, and Cloud Computing, Networks and Infrastructure and Net Neutrality

Article Snapshot


Barbara van Schewick


Stanford Law and Economics Olin Working Paper No. 402, 2010


The author argues that a rule banning application-specific discrimination is the best solution for network neutrality.

Policy Relevance

Network neutrality requires regulatory action in order to encourage beneficial discrimination and discourage harmful discrimination of Internet applications and content. A rule that bans all application-specific discrimination but allows application-agnostic discrimination would be the best rule.

Main Points

  • “Network neutrality” focuses on the question of whether governments should make rules that limit how much network providers can interfere with the applications or content on their networks.
  • The rule for enforcing network neutrality should meet the following criteria: protects innovation and democratic discourse, does not constrain the evolution of the network more than necessary, makes it easy to determine the types of behavior allowed, and keeps regulation costs low.
  • One proposed rule would ban discrimination based on whether it harmed either users or competition. That determination would be made in case-by-case adjudication.
  • A discrimination rule based on harm to user or competition would be difficult to apply because the terms are subject to varying definitions. Moreover, case-by-case adjudications lack certainty and stack the deck against end users who lack the resources to challenge adjudications.
  • On the other hand, a discrimination rule that bans all application-specific discrimination while allowing all application-agnostic discrimination would work well.
  • This rule would protect end users and applications. It would allow end users to determine how they want to use the network. This would protect the criteria that network neutrality seeks to foster.
  • This rule would still allow network providers to manage congestion, but in a way that protects users by allocating bandwidth fairly according to the discrimination-agnostic principle. Tools to do this are available today.
  • Finally, a discrimination-agnostic rule would provide certainty to those in the industry and thus help keep regulation costs low.

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