There’s been many headlines recently about net neutrality, particularly with Google allegedly signing a new deal with US telecoms operator Verizon but how many of us really know what net neutrality is about?

I’d like to explain but the problem is there appears to be more than one definition of what the term does or should mean and various companies are using the term to promote their own corporate strategies which only adds to the confusion. However, in an attempt to help here’s my thoughts on the concept.

Essentially, Net neutrality is the belief that all data should be treated equally. That is every piece of information sent across the information highway is as important as every other piece. The concept focuses on the fact that data should not be discriminated against because of its source, type or size. Concepts are great but in the real world you will appreciate there are a number of other considerations that come into play.

The biggest ‘real world’ impact is ‘quality of service’ – The age old issues of distance from the exchange to the telephone socket to the requirements of different types of data being sent and processed. With bandwidth creating cost differentials there has long been conspiracy theories that an un-publicised tiered system is already employed in respect of data. Quality of Service refers to resource control measures that provide different priority to different applications, users or data to guarantee a certain level of performance for that data.

The processing of data is governed by a set of rules which prioritises network resources to particular services that are deemed more important. Real time analysis of data against the quality of service rules then processes it accordingly, fast-tracking, delaying or discarding as relevant.

Quality of Service filtering certainly does exist on a day-to-day basis. Within an organisation this can take the form of firewall rules prioritising services that are more business and time essential – such as as VOIP – over access to say external websites. Such prioritising in-house seems sensible from a business consideration but those pushing the need for net neutrality are focusing on the potential impact on using the net if those rules were implemented by an ISP that might choose rules that suited itself rather than its customers.

The argument for net neutrality comes from a fear of losing the very assets that made the internet so popular in the first place that of freedom and a level playing field for all. Tim Berners-Lee credited with the invention of the internet is one proponent of the concept arguing that it has nothing to do with wanting the internet for free or even that higher quality service should not be reasonably charged at a higher rate. What net neutrality requires is ‘fairness’, that somebody paying for a service at the same level as another receive an equal service.

So far the internet has governed itself to an extent, protecting its own ethics and the concepts that made it a success. The voices behind the net neutrality movement however such as Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu, suggest that to protect net neutrality governments need to look to legislate to ensure ISPs and the like and not allowed to prioritise net usage just on the basis of their own commercial needs.

Despite all the furore recently it appears nothing formal will change in the immediate future – which will probably only add to the conspiracy theories about how the internet of the future will be run.

What are your thoughts on net neutrality?