Communication Net Neutrality
Alison Novak
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 July 2023
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 July 2023
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756841-0296


Net neutrality is defined as the policy that requires Internet service providers (ISPs) to give access to all digital content according to availability, not personal or organizational preference, priority, or relationship. ISPs cannot discriminate based on a favorable relationship, organizational pressure, or financial incentive. In short, every website or digital application is treated the same by the ISP and may not be blocked or slowed down intentionally. An ISP like Comcast, an organization that provides Internet access to millions of households around the world, cannot slow down access to popular streaming website Netflix to give its own streaming website a competitive advantage. This is because net neutrality is a legal principle that changes over time based on the ruling authority of government. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is responsible for regulating issues of digital policy and access. While net neutrality was the legal principle until 2017 in the United States, changes in FCC leadership as appointed by President Trump overturned net neutrality and eliminated it. Globally, net neutrality is an inconsistent policy in both its design and enforcement. India has one of the strongest sets of net neutrality policies in the world and has strong enforcement measures that heavily penalize ISPs that are found to violate it. The European Union similarly has net neutrality policies, but these are inconsistently enforced throughout its member countries. Australia also has strong net neutrality policies, but critics warn that these policies are rarely enforced. Alternatively, countries like China do not enforce net neutrality at all. Enforcement is often tied to how it is constructed politically. As a policy, net neutrality is a political issue that cultivates pro- and anti-activist groups. The policy is frequently tied to issues of free speech, in that when an ISP discriminates against a specific website, it is simultaneously discriminating against that website’s text/speech. Pro-net neutrality activists argue that net neutrality is foundational to free speech online. Alternatively, anti-net neutrality activists argue that the policy is a cover for government interfering with the economic growth of digital organizations. These discrepancies dramatically impact how technology companies conduct business and public access to digital content.

General Overviews

Most overviews of net neutrality focus on the historical context of the topic, especially situating recent policy developments within the history of the Internet and digital media. This is done in four ways. First, through a historical lens: Goldsmith and Wu 2008 most thoroughly illustrates this history, dividing the history of Internet regulation into four unique periods starting in the 1970s and 1980s. Drawing comparison with Goldsmith and Wu, Marsden 2010 summarizes the history of net neutrality regulation, emphasizing the evolution of the FCC and its interest in digital media following the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which classified the Internet and commercial Internet access as a type of telecommunication service. Second, by comparing legislative actions: Howard 2015 similarly implicates the Telecommunications Act of 1996 when describing the 2014 FCC Open Internet Order, which upheld net neutrality in the USA. This policy was previewed by Meza 2007, which hypothesized the various government reactions that may be adopted on net neutrality in the coming decades. Third, through theoretical reflections: Varnelis 2012 explores what net neutrality policies mean for connectivity and collective action in digital media. The book provides an overview and historical timeline of various forms of digital networks which are enhanced or diminished through net neutrality policies around the world, and the groups responsible for these transitions. Finally, through constitutional analysis: Frieden 2008 similarly explains the connection between net neutrality and other forms of digital communication, such as free speech. Through these four overview styles, readers learn about the timeline of net neutrality while emphasizing the importance of various events, policies, and theories.

  • Frieden, R. 2008. A primer on network neutrality. Inter Economics 43.1: 4–15.

    DOI: 10.1007/s10272-008-0237-z

    A historical overview of the various definitions, global policies, and economic implications of net neutrality, emphasizing the role of business in these effects.

  • Goldsmith, J., and T. Wu. 2008. Who controls the Internet? Illusions of a borderless world. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    Wu was one of the first to use the term “network neutrality” as an indicator of digital accessibility. This book looks at accessibility as part of control and regulation. Because its scope extends beyond network neutrality, it provides a historical overview of the individuals and organizations that controlled Internet regulation and access (dating back to the 1970s and 80s).

  • Howard, M. 2015. Net neutrality for broadband: Understanding the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order and other essays. Middletown, DE: Aeternus Press.

    This short book reflects on the legal history of net neutrality and its impact on broadband media (television and digital media). It is a collection of essays that historically recount how the 2015 ruling was made and how it impacts private media organizations.

  • Maillé, P., and B. Tuffin. 2022. From net neutrality to ICT neutrality. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International.

    DOI: 10.1007/978-3-031-06271-1

    Reflects on the connection of net neutrality to data privacy and transparency.

  • Marsden, C. T. 2010. Net neutrality: Towards a co-regulatory solution. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

    DOI: 10.5040/9781849662192

    Marsden provides a technical reflection on network neutrality and the regulatory efforts made by the government and telecommunication organizations. His book concludes with policy recommendations based on US and European issues.

  • Meza, P. E. 2007. Coming attractions? Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9781503626638

    This text predicts future problems and opportunities for net neutrality by examining the legal boundaries of FCC power. See p. 158.

  • Varnelis, F. 2012. Networked publics. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

    A discussion of how net neutrality may impact public connectivity, social networks, and collective action, such as the protest groups that organized in response to FCC decisions in the early 2000s.

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