Analysis: Tracing the Origins of Net Neutrality

Published July 1, 2009

Now that net neutrality reigns as the most divisive issue in broadband communications, it is surprising how little is known about the origins of the concept or why it is so controversial.

The simple explanation of net neutrality is this: Consumers are entitled to access the Internet content, applications, and devices of their choice, and government should force providers to accommodate those desires, while allowing for “reasonable” network management. Proponents of net neutrality believe in greater broadband regulation, while opponents believe in broadband competition.

However, to understand the issue fully one needs to trace the origins of “neutralism,” the broader belief system and movement behind the net neutrality controversy.

Father of Free Software

The de facto father of the modern neutralism movement is the pioneer of “free software,” Richard Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation in Boston, Massachusetts.

He introduced the concept of what he called “copyleft,” a minimalist form of copyright designed to ensure free software always remained free as it was shared and improved downstream.

Stallman has stated, “Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software. … Being free to do these things means … that you do not have to ask or pay for permission.”

Establishing the ‘Dot.Commons’

The mainstream popularizer of neutralism has been Stanford Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, a follower of Stallman’s. Lessig’s 2001 book, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World, introduced the concepts of a “dot.commons” and more specifically, “neutral” platforms.

Lessig argued commons “are a resource for decentralized innovation. They create the opportunity for individuals to draw upon resources without connections, permission, or access granted by others.” In 2002, Lessig’s friend, Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, formally named this concept “net neutrality.”

Yale Professor Yochai Benkler then organized the economic theory behind net neutrality, which I dubbed “neutralnomics,” in his 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom.

‘A Single Intellectual Movement’

Benkler wrote, “There was a moment … in 2001, when a range of people who were doing similar things … seemed to cohere into a single intellectual movement, centered on the importance of the commons to information production and creativity in general, and to the digitally networked environment in particular.”

In his book Benkler explains that technology and innovation, in concert with a public commons for information and communication, can transform the traditional capitalistic economics of scarcity into a more egalitarian economics of abundance. In neutralnomics, “free” means no cost, “open” means a commons, and “a commons” means no pricing differentiation or usage limits are allowed.

Really to understand the depth of the controversy behind net neutrality, one need focus only on the central belief of neutralism, that all digital information and broadband communications should be a public commons, not private property requiring permission or payment to use. It entirely redefines the realm of human activities.

Defining ‘Internet Freedom’

First, the attempt to define “Internet freedom” as not having “to ask or pay for permission” to use property is antithetical to the Constitution’s protection of property, the rule of law, and the right to own and benefit from property.

Second, the no permission or payment required ethos of neutralism rejects the implicit social contract undergirding American society: With freedom comes responsibility, and with rights come obligations.

Neutralists want to claim the benefits of citizenship while disowning the costs. A healthy society can’t function that way.

Rejecting Market Freedom

Third, neutralism rejects market competition. Without property rights, the rule of law, or binding voluntary contracts, markets and competition can’t function. Neutralists simply reject the centuries of evidence proving market forces enhance consumer welfare and competition generates more consumer welfare than a government-regulated commons.

Fourth, neutralism’s goal of eradicating the time-tested market mechanism that provides economic rewards for creativity, innovation, talent, and merit—which requires property ownership and protection—is a recipe for economic stagnation, high unemployment, mediocre products and services, and a weakening of America’s global competitiveness.

‘No Permission Required’

Fifth, the core “no permission required” mantra of neutralism promotes a lawless Internet where people are not held accountable for their actions. Some net neutrality proponents glamorize Internet corruption such as hacking, piracy, and exposing previously private information. They see all of these as justifiable means to achieve their more noble ends.

Taken to its extreme, if permission should not be required, what’s wrong with not getting permission? If payments should not be required, what’s wrong with not paying? If all information should be public, why respect privacy?

Overturning the Economic System

Net neutrality is not a benign or innocuous policy dispute. Neutralism, the belief system behind net neutrality, proposes to overturn the economic system we have today. Neutralism opposes “big business” and the expansion of intellectual property as enemies of Internet users in enabling the ownership and control of information, communication, and culture for the benefit of the propertied few at the expense of the many.

Broadband competition, property rights, and a free-market Internet would be replaced with a government-controlled Internet commons where no permission or payment was required.

Net neutrality is anything but neutral.

Scott Cleland ([email protected]) is president of Precursor LLC in McLean, Virginia and chairman of, a pro-competition forum funded by broadband companies.