December 15, 2017

Why the FCC should prevent ISPs from micromanaging our lives

Why the FCC should prevent ISPs from micromanaging our lives
by Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger*

Network neutrality prevents broadband Internet service providers from micromanaging our lives online. Constraining the networks this way enables and even empowers Internet users to be active and productive human beings rather than passive consumers. Unfortunately, the network neutrality debate is so polarized that neither side sees the full picture.

On one side, opponents of net neutrality view the Federal Communication Commission’s 2015 Open Internet order as “heavy-handed government regulation” that excessively meddles with broadband Internet Service Providers like Verizon and Comcast. Opponents are looking at a fun house mirror. Despite their repeated false claims that the government will micromanage the Internet through burdensome price regulation, the Open Internet Order only constrains micromanagement by broadband Internet Service Providers. Opponents ignore—if not intentionally distort—the concentrated private power of ISPs, while grossly exaggerating the scope and impact of the FCC’s actual rules.

On the other side, net neutrality advocates see the FCC’s intervention as light regulation that levels the playing field for edge providers—big content companies like Google and Netflix that deliver services to consumers from the edge of the network. Advocates worry that such providers can be squeezed out if ISPs discriminate in favor of their own programming or affiliates—think about on-demand television versus streaming television services, for example. While net neutrality proponents push for the right policy, they aren’t making the strongest case possible and often concede too much ground. In their rush to protect content providers, they shoot themselves in the foot by perpetuating the mythical division between edge providers and ordinary end-users, thus seeming to forget that everyone online is exchanging content.

We’re all content providers. Everything that occurs on the Internet is an exchange of data between end-users. That’s the beauty of the Internet. It opens the door widely for all of us to create, socialize, innovate, and possibly become the next Google or Wikipedia. Unfortunately, advocate distortion diminishes who we are, who we can be, and the social goods we can create by reductively portraying most of us as passive content consumers. What they don’t get or sufficiently highlight is that the infrastructure of the Internet profoundly impacts what we believe is important, true, and worth pursuing throughout all aspects of our lives.

Net Neutrality is a reflection of how society answers three fundamental political questions: Who decides what you do? Who decides who you communicate, transact, and collaborate with? Who decides how you should live your life?

To see what we mean, first consider how indispensable the Internet is for participating in modern life and how deeply it influences the ways we think and act, work and play. Beyond the growth in electronic commerce and innovations that were unimaginable only two decades ago, the Internet has radically increased entrepreneurship, political discourse, the production and consumption of media, social network formation, and community building. Indeed, the Internet provides and shapes essential opportunities for individuals, firms, households, and other organizations to interact with each other. The Internet hasn’t just reconfigured our lived-in environments and transformed capitalism. It’s re-engineered our world.

Next, consider how net neutrality is fundamentally about social control. The social value of the Internet is attributable to its openness, originally enshrined in end-to-end architecture and subsequently protected by the technical difficulties ISPs faced in figuring out who was doing what online in real-time with sufficient accuracy to exercise control over their activities.

Over the past two decades, ISPs invested in developing the technical capability to monitor data streams and develop actionable intelligence that allows them to manage traffic. Keep in mind that “traffic management” is a euphemism for surveillance and control. As with any infrastructure system, some control by ISPs is inevitable and desirable. “Network neutrality” only prevents broadband Internet service providers from using intelligence about end-users and uses (who’s doing what online) to exercise control through the specific means of blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization of data packets. It leaves untouched conventional means for managing congestion, such as congestion pricing, that do not rely on who’s doing what online and instead rely on the timing and quantity of traffic flows.

  • Clarification: Conventional congestion pricing that is practiced in other sectors and is well understood in economics does not require discrimination based on use or user and is not in any way precluded by the network neutrality rules. There are reasons we don’t see it much on the Internet, but the reasons are not legal constraints.

For the past decade, the FCC has struggled to create legal constraints that stand in for the disappearing technical limitations on ISP control. Every time the FCC succeeded, ISPs fought back and challenged the rules.

Network neutrality opponents fear that network neutrality rules will lead to price regulation. But those fears are unfounded. Most recently, the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet order reclassified broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service subject to common carrier regulation under Title II of the Telecommunication Act. Title II lays the foundation for potentially restrictive government regulation, including [cue the scary, dramatic music: dah, dah, dah] price regulation. Fortunately, the FCC exercised substantial forbearance when enacting the Open Internet order. It only sought to solidify the basic principles that it has strongly supported since 2004 and that have been reflected in its previous policy statement, enforcement actions, merger conditions, and 2010 rules. Price regulation is not and has not ever been a feature of network neutrality. Still, the phantom of regulatory creep—that the FCC would use its authority to go beyond network neutrality, implement price controls, and take over the Internet—lurks and scares the hell out of conservatives, even though such expansion would never happen in our contemporary political climate.

In reality, network neutrality in general, and the 2015 Open Internet Order in particular, aim to prevent Broadband Internet service providers from micromanaging what we do online. As we extend Internet-connected sensors to other infrastructures—transportation and electricity—and into other spaces—cities, workplaces, and homes—society will need to grapple with how to govern intelligence and intelligence-enabled control. Frankly, if we can’t get network neutrality for the Internet, it’s hard to imagine we’ll get it for the other, high-stakes intelligence-enabled control systems we’re building.

* Brett M. Frischmann, Charles Widger Endowed University Professor in Law, Business and Economics, Villanova University, and Evan Selinger, Professor of Philosophy at Rochester Institute of Technology are co-authors of Re-Engineering Humanity, Cambridge University Press: forthcoming in April 2018.

CITP Call for Visitors and Affiliates 2018-19

The Center for Information Technology Policy is an interdisciplinary research center at Princeton that sits at the crossroads of engineering, the social sciences, law, and policy.

We are seeking applicants for various residential visiting positions and for non-residential affiliates. For more information about these positions, please see our general information page and yearly call for applications and our lists of current and past visitors.

For all visitors, we are happy to hear from anyone working at the intersection of digital technology and public life, including experts in computer science, sociology, economics, law, political science, public policy, information studies, communication, and other related disciplines.

We have a particular interest this year in candidates working on issues related to Artificial Intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT).


All visitors must apply online through the links below. There are three job postings for CITP visitors: 1) the Microsoft Visiting Research Scholar/Professor of Information Technology Policy, 2) Visiting IT Policy Fellow, and 3) IT Policy Researcher.

Microsoft Visiting Research Scholar/Professor of Information Technology Policy

The successful applicant must possess a Ph.D. and will be appointed to a ten-month term, beginning September 1st. The visiting professor must teach one course in technology policy per academic year. Preference will be given to current or past professors in related fields and to nationally or internationally recognized experts in technology policy.

The application process for the Microsoft Visiting Research Scholar/Professor of Information Technology Policy position is generally open from November through the end of January for the upcoming year.

Apply here to become the Microsoft Visiting Research Scholar/Visiting Professor of Information Technology Policy

Visiting IT Policy Fellow

A Visiting IT Policy Fellow is on leave from a full-time position (for example, a professor on sabbatical). The successful applicant must possess an advanced degree and typically will be appointed to a nine-month term, beginning September 1st.

Full consideration for the Visiting IT Policy Fellow is given to those who apply from November through the end of January for the upcoming year.

Apply here to become a Visiting IT Policy Fellow

IT Policy Researcher

An IT Policy Researcher will have Princeton University as the primary affiliation during the visit to CITP (for example, a postdoctoral researcher or a professional visiting for a year between jobs). The successful applicant must possess a Ph.D. or equivalent and typically will be appointed to a 12-month term, beginning September 1st.

Full consideration for IT Policy Researcher positions is given to those who apply from November through the end of January for the upcoming year.

Apply here to become an IT Policy Researcher

Applicants should apply to either the Visiting IT Policy Fellow position or the IT Policy Researcher position, but not both; applicants to either position may also apply to be the Microsoft Visiting Research Scholar/Professor if they hold a Ph.D.

All applicants should submit a current curriculum vitae, a research plan (including a description of potential courses to be taught if applying for the visiting professor position), and a cover letter describing background, interest in the program, and any funding support for the visit. References are not required until finalists are notified. CITP has secured limited resources from a range of sources to support visitors. However, many of our visitors are on paid sabbatical from their own institutions or otherwise provide some or all of their own outside funding.

Princeton University is an Equal Opportunity/Affirmative Action Employer and all qualified applicants will receive consideration for employment without regard to age, race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, disability status, protected veteran status, or any other characteristic protected by law.

All offers and appointments are subject to review and approval by the Dean of the Faculty.


Technology policy researchers and experts who wish to have an affiliation with CITP, but cannot be in residence in Princeton, may apply to become a CITP Affiliate. The affiliation typically will last for two years. Affiliates do not have any formal appointment at Princeton University.

Applicants should email applications to between November and the end of January for affiliations beginning the following academic year. Please send a current curriculum vitae and a cover letter describing background and interest in the program.

If you have any questions about any of these positions or the application process, please feel free to contact us at

AI and Policy Event in DC, December 8

Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy (CITP) recently launched an initiative on Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, and Public Policy.  On Friday, December 8, 2017, we’ll be in Washington DC talking about AI and policy.

The event is at the National Press Club, at 12:15-2:15pm on Friday, December 8.  Lunch will be provided for those who register in advance.

The agenda includes:

  • Ed Felten, with a background briefing on AI and the AI policy landscape,
  • Arvind Narayanan on AI and fairness,
  • Olga Russakovsky on diversifying the AI workforce,
  • Chloe Bakalar on AI and ethics, and
  • Nick Feamster on AI and freedom of expression.

For those who can stay longer, we’ll have a roundtable discussion with the speakers, starting at 2:30.