I wish to take issue with my colleague Steve Weber’s assertion that “there have [only] been a couple of very small incidents” in which Internet access was blocked. The record indicates otherwise.
Perhaps the most celebrated case (because it lead to direct FCC action) was Comcast’s blocking BitTorrent traffic. This was not quickly reversed (reports indicated that the blocking occurred for over one year); it was not dealt with in a straightforward way (Comcast reportedly initially denied to the FCC that it was blocking BitTorrent); and it was not reversed by market forces (the FCC finally made a decision over Comcast’s objections.)
Further: large providers have given conflicting statements on whether or not they intend to apply discriminatory treatment. For example, one Verizon executive strongly implied that Verizon planned to require payment in the future for access to its subscribers.
Finally, it is a false analogy to compare the monopoly situation of search providers and network providers. Most municipalities only license a single cable provider; similarly in most cases it is impossible to string up a local loop, only a single ILEC is licensed. While other large-scale broadband technologies to end consumers have been proposed (e.g., wimax, broadband over power line, etc.) these are still unavailable for the vast majority of American residences. There is no analogous regulatory barrier to entry into the search market — the economic realities of the search market may or may not raise traditional antitrust issues. In contrast, not only are there regulatory barriers to entering the cable broadband or local loop markets, providers have been granted monopolies by government entities. It hardly seems extraordinary to regulate them.
While I do not argue in this post for or against net neutrality legislation or regulation, I hope it is clear that the issue is not simply a “theoretical” matter.