Officials at the University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Harvard Computer Society said that the promise of network neutrality, which could materialize under an Obama administration, would help preserve the Internet’s democratic qualities.
“One could imagine if the Internet were much less neutral there would be much less innovation and it would be easier for corporations to stifle free expression on the Internet,” said Joseph P. Zimmerman ’10, the vice president of communications at HCS.
In 2007, Obama publicly stated that he supports Internet neutrality.
“As president, I’m going to make sure that [net neutrality] is the principle that my FCC commissioners are applying as we move forward,” he said.
Network neutrality is a concept in network design that states that information should be able to flow freely over networks, including the Internet, “regardless of political ideology or other constraints,” such as content or the origin or destination of the information, according to Co-director of the Berkman Center John G. Palfrey, Jr. ’94. For example, Internet providers would not be able to restrict user access to Web sites based on which ones provide them with more money.
Currently, the government does not explicitly enforce network neutrality, said Zimmerman.
Although the Berkman Center does not take any official stances on any issues, Palfrey said he is “certainly an advocate of network neutrality.”
He added that while most people believe “an open Internet is a good thing,” disagreements can arise when it comes to how to put net neutrality into practice. One question is whether Internet service providers can discriminate based on network service needs. For instance, said Palfrey, Harvard’s network might need to limit the flow of some information in order to protect some uses of the network against others.
“You could imagine a world in which everyone was trying to watch movies at the same time and no one could access their homework at that time,” said Palfrey.
While Zimmerman said that the Internet is “more or less a neutral network,” he added that some practices—such as ESPN 360, which is only made available through certain Internet service providers—make the Internet less neutral.
Other examples of network regulation in violation of net neutrality include Comcast’s alleged restriction of uploads for peer-to-peer sharing applications such as BitTorrent, which sparked an FCC hearing at the Law School last February. The Berkman Center sponsored a petition that encouraged the FCC to oppose Internet service providers that discriminated by content.
But Palfrey said that he was excited for the future of network neutrality.
“I think there is great promise in the Obama administration in terms of making it happen in a public-spirited way,” he said.
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