Net neutrality: A complex topic made simple

Google's talk of a broadband network is likely to reignite debate

Google's recently announced plan to set up trial fiber optic networks in the U.S. with ultra-high speed Internet connections puts the long-running national debate over Net neutrality back into high gear.

A hot topic of discussion and debate in government and telecom circles since at least 2003, Net neutrality, actually involves a broad array of topics, technologies and players. Here's a primer for those looking to get up to speed fast:

What is Net neutrality'? At its core, the Net neutrality movement in the U.S. refers to efforts to keep the Internet open, accessible and "neutral" to all users, application providers and network carriers. In theory, this means, for example, that one carrier would not be allowed to discriminate against an application written by a third party (such as Google Voice) by requiring its users to rely on the carrier's own proprietary voice applications. A carrier's walled-garden browser, which allows access to only certain Web sites, is also not seen as neutral by many neutrality proponents.

The term Net neutrality is clearly politically laden. It isn't used that much by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in its deliberations on the matter. (The FCC is weighing a national broadband policy it hopes to present to Congress next month.) Traditional carriers don't use the term that much either, since they often argue there is nothing wrong with the openness of the Internet, something Google and a variety of public interest groups dispute.

What is the FCC doing with Net neutrality? The FCC wears many hats, from auctioning off wireless spectrum to administering long distance telephone service to helping set long-term Internet policy. The Net neutrality issue is encapsulated by the FCC in a document issued last Oct. 22: the open Internet "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (download PDF).

That document has generated comments from many interested parties in the industry. The FCC said in its executive summary (Section 16) that it wanted comments on the "best means of preserving a free and open Internet, however it is accessed." The agency also lists six principles it hopes to codify in law, including four taken from an Internet Policy Statement first issued by the FCC in 2005. Those four principles are to allow users to: access lawful Internet content; run applications and use services of their choice; run devices of their choice that don't harm the network; and benefit from competition among carriers, content providers and application providers.

Two newer principles include one that would require service providers to treat all lawful Internet content applications and services in a non-discriminatory manner and another requiring them to disclose information about network management to users as well as content, application and other service providers.

Significantly, FCC Chairman Julius Genachjowski said in a video presentation in October that the proposed rules were "not about regulating the Internet," a comment that has led to continued debate about what he means (subscription required).

In fact, the October written notice, in section 14, specifically said: "The rules we propose today address users' ability to ACCESS the Internet and are not intended to regulate the Internet itself...."

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