Net Neutrality means many things to many people. For some it means the network is indifferent to the packets that flow through. For others it represents the freedom for the little guy to take on the big corporate - and have a chance. Others view it as an unwelcome encroachment of the Government into yet another business. Still others see it as an archaic concept representing the early dawn of the Internet, ready for retirement as IPv4.
Net Neutrality is all that and more, depending on who you ask. Events over the last few weeks, in my mind, are watershed. Irrespective of the outcome, the arguments made now will define the nature of discussion going forward.
First the basics - Net Neutrality means that the networks are agnostic to their traffic. Drawing a rough parallel, it is like the highway system is agnostic to the type of vehicle. You could drive a Lamborghini or a commercial 18-wheeler, the rules of the road apply the same. Similarly, proponents of Net Neutrality want the Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to keep their hands off all traffic, arguing that the democracy on the web was the key for innovation over the past few decades.
On the other hand, opponents characterize it as an impediment to the natural evolution of the Net, where unnecessary oversight (by the FCC) will reduce competition and eliminate choice.
The graphic is what advocates promise will happen without neutrality, and opponents ridicule as being far fetched.
Personally, I love the idea of Net Neutrality. Like Open Source, it represents an idea of single-minded meritocracy - the best idea wins. But realistically, I think the idea is always going to be little more than an aspirational goal. But as a law, there is little that network neutrality can deliver. Paradoxically, any legislation that enforces neutrality automatically puts someone else in charge of the network.
Why is this relevant now? Google and Verizon came up with a policy proposal a few days ago, outlining a set of seven framework ideas as a basis for a future for network neutrality. There was a swift response from news sites and blogosphere, mainly critical, including accusations of a Google sellout. ATT called it reasonable - and the battle lines are drawn. Google did come up with an explanation of sorts, but only helped paint a stark picture of how this debate is only going to get clearer than mud in the months ahead.
As I said, these are defining times. Ideas and decisions taken now will define the nature of the Internet and innovation in the future. All most of us can do, is wait and see.
Update: A follow-up article to the destructively accurate article over at Wired; a very pragmatic outlook.
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