Net Neutrality and Common Carrier

Yesterday’s @RNDrive program about Net Neutrality managed to confuse the issue with Common Carriers. Under the telecommunication act Carriers in Australia are not Common Carriers, neither are Carriage Service Providers. This status also has relatively little to do with Net Neutrality (at least in Australia)

What is a Common Carrier

Common Carriers have a special set of rights and responsibilities under law. The best example of these rights is to consider what happens to a Common Carrier versus what happens to other carriers when illegal content is carried. A simple example would be the transport of a package containing an illegal narcotic:

  • If the package were posted with Australia Post (a Common Carrier) and the police intercept the package the Postie is not going to get dragged off to jail
  • If the package were given to a courier (an ordinary carrier) then there is a possibility that the courier could be arrested

Common Carriers are not generally held responsible for the items that they carry; in exchange for this privilege they are generally required to take items without inspection and on a non-discriminatory basis. That does not mean that they cannot have differential charging rates based on address.

Net Neutrality

Is a concept that internet providers should be required to carry traffic without prejudice or preference.

So what do Net Neutrality and Common Carrier status have to do with each other?

Not much. Common Carriers have pretty much always been allowed to charge different amounts for different addresses - typically though this is legislatively restricted to cost of service differences - but that is really only part of the bargain that they receive protection from actions relating to the content of the material they carry.

Furthermore, ISPs aren’t Common Carriers in Australia - just ask iiNet who were sued over BitTorrent traffic by Roadshow films.


Having run both an ISP (Carriage Service Provider) and a Carrier, I would have loved to have been a Common Carrier, and had the protections stemming from that status - especially as the reality was that inspecting Internet traffic is hard and controlling it very hard (if not impossible). The thought of being held legally responsible for content I could not practically control was extremely distressing.

The only reason I can see for roping the Common Carrier concept in is that it constitutes a legislative bargain which could be extended to create a charging regime for Net Neutrality. However, the reality is that new legislation could easily be constructed that has nothing to do with being a Common Carrier that would address the Net Neutrality issue.

Both are separate, complex and interesting issues, discussing them together as if they were linked on @RNDrive confused both issues and did neither justice.