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net bias

Contributor(s): Matthew Haughn

Net bias is discrimination of price, content quality, connection reliability and speed that Internet service providers (ISP) can enact on users based on arbitrary conditions. The term can also apply when an ISP favors one content or service provider over another. An ISP used net bias when network conditions are artificially created by blocking traffic or discriminating between users' tiered levels of service.

Net bias is a blanket term created by Professor Rob Frieden to refer to discriminatory treatment of customers and data that favors an ISP or their affiliates. The concept is considered a contrasting principle of net neutrality, which is the belief that data packets on the internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source.

ISPs are able to engage in practices that undermine net neutrality due to their position of network control between users and Internet access. Advances in network traffic and quality of service (QoS) management are among the factors that have enhanced the capacity for discrimination.

Net bias often involves the use of network traffic management practices that opponents consider anti-competitive, counter to user privacy interests, and preventative of free speech rights. Such practices include data-metered connections, tiered service, data throttling, dropping of packets and blocking of connections or ports.

In some cases, examples of net bias may be justifiable for political or economic reasons and is not considered to violate the spirit of net neutrality. For example, in the case of tiered service, it is considered a normal business practice for higher-paying customers to receive faster connections. In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) investigates cases of net bias. However, while the movement for net neutrality gained momentum under the Obama administration, it is likely to be reversed under the new Trump administration.

This was last updated in April 2017

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