Network Neutrality and the Need for a Technological Turn in Internet Scholarship

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In HANDBOOK OF MEDIA LAW AND POLICY: A SOCIO-LEGAL EXPLORATION (Monroe E. Price & Stefaan G. Verhulst eds., Routledge forthcoming 2012).


To most social scientists, the technical details of how the Internet actually works remain arcane and inaccessible. At the same time, convergence is forcing scholars to grapple with how to apply regulatory regimes developed for traditional media to a world in which all services are provided via an Internet-based platform. This chapter explores the problems caused by the lack of familiarity with the underlying technology, using as its focus the network neutrality debate that has dominated Internet policy for the past several years. The analysis underscores a surprising lack of sophistication in the current debate. Unfamiliarity with the Internet’s architecture has allowed some advocates to characterize prioritization of network traffic as an aberration, when in fact it is a central feature designed into the network since its inception. The lack of knowledge has allowed advocates to recast pragmatic engineering concepts as supposedly inviolable architectural principles, effectively imbuing certain types of political advocacy with a false sense of scientific legitimacy. As the technologies comprising the network continue to change and the demands of end users create pressure on the network to further evolve, the absence of technical grounding risks making the status quo seem like a natural construct that cannot or should not be changed.

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type of service, NSFNET, BGP, policy-based routing, DiffServ, IntServ, MPLS, 700 MHz auction, load balancing, U-verse, Amtrak Acela, PlusNet, Internet2’s Interoperable On-demand Network, LEDBAT, IPv6, MetroPCS