When Network Neutrality Met Privacy

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

Article Snapshot


Paul Ohm


Communications of the ACM, Vol. 53, No. 4, pp. 30-32, 2010


This article analyzes the controversy over network neutrality, comparing it to existing laws governing network scrutiny.

Policy Relevance

Instead of focusing solely on the issue of neutrality, policy makers should instead consider amending network scrutiny laws in order to reach a compromise between both sides of the neutrality issue.

Main Points

  • There is continuing controversy over network neutrality, which is the way that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) prioritize packets of information that travel across their networks.  Those in favor of network neutrality believe that all packets of information should be treated the same by ISPs.

    • The advantage of network neutrality is that internet privacy would be greatly increased, because ISPs would no longer be able to analyze every packet that moves across their network.
    • The disadvantage would be the inability of ISPs to find and stop viruses, hackers, and worms moving across their system, which could lead to serious problems for internet users.
  • However, it may be possible to reach a compromise between those in favor of network neutrality and those opposed by using or modifying network scrutiny laws already in place.
  • Network scrutiny laws determine the depth to which ISPs can search any packet that moves across their network.  These laws were enacted in 1986 as part of the Federal Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), and prohibit the unjustified interception of information on a computer network.
  • The ECPA already provides some degree of network neutrality protection by preventing ISPs from aggressively expanding their methods of scrutiny.  It would also be possible for Congress to amend the ECPA to clarify and restrict exceptions to the law, such as getting rid of the current consent exception.
  • Network scrutiny laws might then provide a balance, increasing network neutrality by limiting the information that ISPs have access to, while still allowing ISPs the necessary amount of information needed to stop hackers.

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