Network Neutrality: Ethical Issues in the Internet Era

Matteo Turilli, Antonino Vaccaro and Luciano Floridi


The paper investigates the ethical nature of network neutrality in relation to its application to the Internet. Three main questions are addressed:

  1. What is the ethical nature of Internet neutrality?
  2. Should Internet neutrality be endorsed when considering its ethical implications?
  3. What ethical framework should be endorsed for regulating Internet traffic?

Specifically, we argue that network neutrality is not an ethical principle per se and that it does not directly enable or substantiate ethical principles. Consequently, network neutrality should not be considered dogmatically, as done in previous literature (e.g. Goldsmith and Wu, 2006; Wu, 2005), but rather should be evaluated pragmatically when applied to the Internet. An analysis of the parameters that to evaluate the quality of Internet services from the user’s perspective uncovers how, in many cases, implementing Internet neutrality may breach ethical principles. So we argue that a set of coordinated policies would be preferable in order to regulate Internet traffic, instead of a neutral approach. We propose an ecological ethical framework, that accord competing interests and considers the effects of stakeholders’ actions on each other, in order to avoid the potential unethical consequences of Internet traffic regulation.

The paper is organised into four sections. The first critically analyses the concept of network neutrality. Following previous literature (e.g. Wu, 2005; Yoo, 2005), a network is qualified as neutral if and only if all transactions are performed under the same set of criteria. For example, the United Parcel Service (UPS) network can be said to be neutral only if packages are sent to and from any user by applying the same criteria expressed in terms of priority, checking-in and checking-out procedures, carrier typology or pricing. Such a definition does not depend on the topology of the network or the technology involved. It is therefore readily applicable to all networks, including the Internet. Clients, servers and routing-related devices coordinate and perform transactions of data packets through the Internet. Such transactions are regulated by communication protocols that determine the route of a data packet depending on its destination and properties. The Internet is neutral if and only if all data packets are transmitted with the same priority, irrespective of their properties.

The second section of the paper investigates the ethical implications of implementing network neutrality into the Internet. The ethical myth of Internet neutrality is debunked showing how a neutral Internet can be used unethically by offering unfair services to a variety of stakeholders. It is argued that a neutral Internet does not allow for a quality-based prioritisation of the traffic and, as such, impairs some services and their users while unfairly favouring others. For example, in a condition of neutrality, P2P services can augment the latency of real-time, interactive services such as VoIP or remote shell connections. In such contexts, Internet neutrality supports unfair and discriminatory usage of resources based on uncontrolled competition. Therefore we suggest that, in order to avoid such negative consequences, Internet neutrality should be dropped in favour of a controlled, service-oriented prioritisation of the traffic.

The third section shows that, while a neutral Internet does not guarantee an ethical service and still allows for unethical practises, regulative policies raise important ethical issues if they are not devised in the context of an appropriate ethical framework. In particular, the discussion leads to the analysis of four main problems associated with the development of a regulative internet policy: (1) appropriation of the communication resources in favour of a pay-per-transaction model; (2) deterioration of the standard quality of service; (3) packet routing discrimination; and (4) unfair intra-service competition. These consequences would promote unethical conditions for Internet services, such as unfairness, discrimination, digital divide or lack of freedom for developers and users.

The fourth and final part of the paper analyses how the adoption of an ecological-ethical framework during the phase of policy-making would minimise unethical consequences in Internet regulation. An ecological approach requires one to consider the interplay between the interests of all the parts involved in the use, maintenance, development and monitoring of the Internet. The goal is to guarantee and balance different interests against each other, carefully evaluating the effects of each choice on all the stakeholders.

This approach has been successfully deployed in many existing communications networks (for example, private national highway systems, private national power-grids, world-wide transportation infrastructures) and we provide a detailed description. We then argue that the separation and ‘ecological’ regulation of different Internet services offered, in addition to a shared and possibly nationally controlled communication infrastructure, would make it possible to control unethical practises and optimise available resources.

The paper ends with two explanatory examples. They point out how Internet regulation, as opposed to the neutrality paradigm, can be leveraged in order to guarantee both ethical requirements and more efficient communications and services. The first example shows how to implement a policy to avoid spam by introducing subscription-based mail services modelled on physical mail delivery systems. The second example illustrates how a resource redistribution schema could guarantee a standard quality of service comparable to the one enjoyed today by Internet users.


Goldsmith, J., Wu, T. 2006. Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Wu, T. 2005. Network Neutrality, Broadband Discrimination, Journal of Telecommunications and High Technology Law 2, 141-78.

Yoo, C. S. 2005. Beyond Network Neutrality. Harvard Journal of Law and Technology, 19(1), 1-24.

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