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Network neutrality is a principle of network design. It asserts that, in order to promote innovation, network service providers such as telephone and cable internet companies should not be permitted to dictate how those networks are used (i.e., not permitted to ban certain types of programs, to ban certain types of devices connecting to the network, or to favor carriage of traffic to certain web sites over others). Susan Crawford distinguishes substrate neutrality by which she means only the physical pipes which the Cable cos and Telcos say they own free and clear and over which logically as First Amendment speakers like in Miami Herald v. Tournillo government has no right to regulate as to content absent a compelling state interest that can pass the strict scrutiny of judicial review.
It is closely related to the end to end principle. Under this principle, a dumb network merely connects devices, and is insensitive to the needs of applications running on those devices. Contrast this with an intelligent network.
Underlying the theory of the benefits of network neutrality is a belief that a neutral network promotes Schumpterian, or evolutionary innovation of information technology.
Network neutrality arguments have antecedents in other concepts in communications law, such as common carrier regulation and the "Computer Inquiries" approach. The contemporary use of the phrase "network neutrality" began in the early 2000s, though its exact origins are unknown. Some groups prefer the term "bit discrimination."
Some of the arguments associated with network neutrality came into prominence in mid 2002, pushed by the "High Tech Broadband Coalition", a group comprising developers for Amazon.com, Google, and Microsoft. However, the fuller concept of "Network neutrality" was developed mainly by legal academics, most prominently law professors Tim Wu and Lawrence Lessig and Federal Communications Commission Chairman Michael Powell, the first government official to endorse Network Neutrality. It is worth noting, however, that the ideas underlying Network Neutrality have a long pedigree in telecommunications regulation.
Proposals for network neutrality laws are generally opposed by the cable television and telephone industries and some conservative and libertarian scholars including Christopher Yoo and Adam Thierer. Opponents argue that (1) network neutrality "principles" are likely to become the basis for more intrusive regulation of the internet, and (2) imposing such regulation will chill investment in competitive networks (e.g., wireless broadband) and deny network providers the ability to differentiate their services.