The Internet is an achievement of historic importance, arguably rivaling or exceeding the invention of the printing press in its capacity to spread human knowledge and entertainment to the farthest corners of the globe. With the introduction of his printing press in 1450,1 Gutenberg took the books from the hands of cloistered monks and put them into the hands of those who would challenge the orthodoxy of the Church—and into the hands of those who would build the free society that has produced the industrial and technological marvels we enjoy today.

In the same manner, the Internet takes encyclopedic knowledge from the libraries and puts it into the homes of people all over the earth. It delivers images of artworks from the Louvre and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to our homes. It makes the wares of locally owned boutiques available to a world of customers. It facilitates discussions between distant scholars and enthusiasts on every possible subject. And, as did the printing press, it can lead to great cultural and political change, by spreading truths that censored media around the world cannot speak. The Internet promotes the open exchange of ideas and information in an unprecedented way.

What makes this open exchange of ideas and information possible? According to some, the answer is something called “net neutrality.”

“Net Neutrality is the reason why the Internet has driven economic innovation, democratic participation, and free speech online,” claims one website. And, say its advocates, net neutrality—and thus the Internet itself—is in grave danger:

The big phone and cable companies are spending hundreds of millions of dollars lobbying Congress and the Federal Communications Commission to gut Net Neutrality, putting the future of the Internet at risk. . . . The consequences of a world without Net Neutrality would be devastating. Innovation would be stifled, competition limited, and access to information restricted. Consumer choice and the free market would be sacrificed to the interests of a few corporate executives.2

Such claims naturally catch the attention of people who value innovation, competition, and information. And anything that threatens to thwart the free market is certainly cause for alarm. But what exactly is net neutrality? Does it really protect these crucial values? If so, how? And if not, might it actually assault them? To answer these questions, we must first specify the exact nature of the Internet.

What Is the Internet?

Anyone who uses the Internet understands on some level what it is: a means by which computer users around the world can exchange data, usually via websites and email. But, for our purposes, we need a deeper and broader understanding of the Internet and how it came to be. . . .


Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Alan Germani and David Veksler for their valuable contributions to this article.

* The writings, artworks, proprietary software, and other intellectual creations available online that are not in the public domain are the private property of their respective creators.

1 “Johannes Gutenberg, The Invention of Movable Type,”, accessed on November 11, 2008.

2 “Save the Internet .com,”, accessed on November 22, 2008.

3 Internet Society, “A Brief History of the Internet,” Introduction,, accessed on November 25, 2008.

4 Ibid., Initial Concepts,, accessed on November 25, 2008.

5 “Who ‘created’ the Internet? It’s a tangled web,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 20, 2000,

6 The median speed in the United States is 2.3 million bits/second (2.3 megabits/second). Communication Workers of America, “National Study of Real-Time Internet Connection Speeds Shows U.S. Falling Further Behind Other Advanced Nations,” August 12, 2008,

7 “Verizon FAQs FIOS Basics,”, accessed on November 10, 2008.

8 Robert E. Litan and Hal J. Singer, “Unintended Consequences of Net Neutrality Regulation,” Journal on Telecommunications & High Technology Law (2007),, p. 3.

9 Lawrence Lessig, The Future of Ideas: The Fate of the Commons in a Connected World (New York: Vintage Books, 2002), pp. 20, 23.

10 Ibid., p. 37.

11 Ibid., pp. 38–40.

12 “Net Neutrality: Speed Bumps on the Information Highway,” San Francisco Chronicle, June 18, 2006,

13 “Preserving Internet Freedom: Guiding Principles for the Industry,” remarks of Michael K. Powell, chairman, Federal Communications Commission, February 8, 2004,

14 Policy Statement, F.C.C. 05-151, August 5, 2005,, emphasis removed.

15 Comcast Corporate Overview,, accessed on November 9, 2008.

16 Formal Complaint of Free Press and Public Knowledge Against Comcast Corporation for Secretly Degrading Peer-to-Peer Applications, F.C.C. 08-183, August 1, 2008, Lawrence Lessig is a member of the Advisory Board of the group Free Press and Public Knowledge:

17 For details on BitTorrent’s peer-to-peer file transfer technology, see, accessed on November 25, 2008. Bit Torrent’s method can transmit all types of large files in addition to video, such as games, software updates, and audio.

18 “Video, rich Web content threaten Internet capacity and flat-rate access,” The Industry Standard, November 11, 2008,

19 Formal Complaint of Free Press and Public Knowledge Against Comcast, paragraph 55, page 33.

20 “Comcast to slow down heaviest ’Net users to DSL speeds,” August 21, 2008,

21 See “The Haptic Workbench,”, accessed on November 22, 2008. By making remote surgery untenable or extremely expensive, net neutrality will kill people who would otherwise have received life-saving surgery.

22 Internet Freedom Preservation Act, S.215, January 9, 2007,

23 A typical example is the Internet Freedom Preservation Act, S.215.

24 “Net Neutrality or Government Brutality,” The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty, July/August 2008,, p. 13.

25 “FCC Fines N. Car. Provider $15K For Blocking Vonage,” March 3, 2005,

26 The so-called “last mile” problem of providing physical Internet capacity to homes and businesses will be solved by recognizing property rights to the rights-of-way that lie underneath and above city streets. For a full discussion of this idea applied to the build-out of electric transmission infrastructure—and by implication to the build-out of telecommunications infrastructure for Internet bandwidth—see Raymond C. Niles, “Property Rights and the Crisis of the Electric Grid,” The Objective Standard (Summer 2008),

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