Reconciling Economic and Political Goals in the Internet Ecosystem

24 Pages Posted: 23 Jan 2012

See all articles by Johannes M. Bauer

Johannes M. Bauer

Michigan State University-Department of Media and Information

Jonathan A. Obar

York University; Quello Center - Michigan State University

Date Written: September 25, 2011


Discussions of fundamental directions of communications policy are rare. More typically, incremental problems are addressed as they arise, although the accumulation of such small changes may have big consequences. The network neutrality debate is one of these rare opportunities to reflect on the bigger issues of information and communications policy. Because of its overarching nature, it touches a broad range of economic and non-economic policy concerns. It addresses a fundamental issue in advanced communications: how to structure the rights and obligations of different stakeholders in the ICT system, particularly among the operators of physical network platforms and providers of content and applications. However, in this context, it also addresses the rights of users and possibly vertical relations between providers of logical platforms (e.g., operating systems, development platforms, and search) and other stakeholders. From an economic vantage point, this raises questions related to the dynamics and performance of vertically related network markets, in which market power is present at least in some segments. Should the rules of interaction between players be allowed to evolve in repeated market interactions or is there a need for a collective agent to define boundaries or even mandatory rules? From a broader social policy perspective, additional issues become important, including the implications of different governance arrangements for the freedom of speech, democracy and civic participation, and possibly human rights in general.

This diversity of objectives complicates the discussion greatly. Proponents and opponents of network neutrality often construct their arguments from different, even disconnected, normative frameworks. Some analyses are based on broad, and widely shared, aims of communications policy, such as the protection of free speech or support for democratic goals. Others focus narrowly on the economic efficiency implications of policy choices. Rarely are there any attempts to reconcile these different angles and to explore the relation between different goals and the instruments proposed to implement them. Analyses of the diversity of vantage points common to communications policy debates have been addressed before. Wildman and Entman 1992) analyzed the analytical and policy debates around the notion of a marketplace of ideas. They pointed to major inconsistencies and misunderstandings between experts sympathetic to a liberal economic perspective and those arguing from a broader social welfare position. We similarly posit that a lack of clarification of the various dimensions of a policy debate can muddy the water, confusing the design and implementation of policy principles and instruments. Our paper attempts to contribute to a clarification of political and economic goals and the potential instruments that can be used to pursue them.

To this end, we review economic and political reasons that are used as rationales to argue for or against network neutrality. This discussion also helps differentiate alternative specifications of network neutrality and examine overlaps, tensions, and contradictions among stakeholders. We then proceed with an analysis of the relations between different instruments proposed to address the governance problem and how different policy options serve these aims. We are interested in the logical relations between instruments and objectives. Are certain instruments sufficient, necessary, or neither to achieve an outcome? Do different instruments have to be used in combination? Do trade-offs exist between goals or is it possible to achieve a balanced combination?

Suggested Citation

Bauer, Johannes M. and Obar, Jonathan A., Reconciling Economic and Political Goals in the Internet Ecosystem (September 25, 2011). TPRC 2011, Available at SSRN:

Johannes M. Bauer (Contact Author)

Michigan State University-Department of Media and Information ( email )

409 Communication Arts Building
East Lansing, MI 48824-1212
United States
517-355-8372 (Phone)
517-355-1292 (Fax)


Jonathan A. Obar

York University ( email )

4700 Keele Street
Toronto, Ontario M3J 1P3

Quello Center - Michigan State University ( email )

East Lansing, MI 48824
United States

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