Net Neutrality is 80 Years Old

by Colin Berkshire

The notion that the internet is not a utility is wrong, and it is contrary to good public policy.

Internet companies use public right-of-ways such as conduits, telephone poles, and public owned roadways. This privilege is something not open to competition. You cannot wake up one day, decide to start an internet company, and start stringing wire on telephone poles. Even with a lot of money you cannot. You need permission from local governments who own the roads and often the poles.

This single fact alone means that an internet service company has a social debt to the citizens it serves.

The debate over how to reconcile a private company profiting from public right-of-ways was thoroughly debated in the 1920s and resulted in the telecommunications act of 1934. This very important act introduced the concept of net neutrality. In short:

  1. All communications companies were deemed to be common carriers if they used any public airwaves or rights of way.
  2. A communications company could not charge different customers differing prices. Everybody within a class paid the same thing for the same grade of service. (Eg, residential, business)
  3. A telecommunications company could not discriminate. They could not charge differently based upon what you were communicating. They could not charge one price for listening to music, another for emergency calls, and another for monitoring a security system. In fact, they were prohibited from monitoring your calls or from depriving any information from the call. Even the calling and called numbers could not be used for any purpose other than billing. Employees were restricted from having access to this information without a need to know.
  4. Later, the requirement was added requiring all telephone companies to interconnect with each other on a non-discriminatory basis.
  5. All policies (including prices) had to be openly published for any customer to see. And, customers could comment on the policies and the states had the authority to modify those policies. The published documents were called “Tariffs”.

I don’t understand why these rules still don’t apply. Yes, 80 years have passed. But nothing has changed. The debate is the same one. It’s been endlessly debated and we have previously seen the horrors of discriminatory pricing and service. How there can be any question that internet service companies are not common carriers befuddles me.