The debate on net neutrality hit the headlines again this month as Google and US telecoms operator Verizon negotiated a deal which they claim will preserve the ideology while catering to the needs of internet service providers (ISPs).
We explain the thinking behind net neutrality, why a deal between two US companies is important to UK businesses, and how the ramifications are widespread and could splinter the internet.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality in its purest form is the belief that all data should be treated equally. Data should not be discriminated against because of its source, type or size. The concern is that ISPs will use the distance from the exchange to the telephone socket to limit access to the internet.
There are numerous 'visions' of net neutrality which only enhance the confusion and misunderstanding of this important concept. The most common are:
* No data discrimination - all data is treated equally
* Data discrimination with quality of service (QoS) but no cost attached - data is treated based on rules with no price to access high priority 'levels'
* Data discrimination with QoS and priced performance tiers - data is treated differently depending on rules and pricing
The 'no discrimination' policy is what could be classed as true net neutrality. This puts forward the notion that data from all internet services, such as web sites, email, VoIP and peer-to-peer, are treated the same and given identical priority to use network resources. While this is the panacea, the reality is somewhat different.
As network bandwidth is limited, the notion of QoS has been discussed and deployed for years. In its most basic form, QoS is a set of rules which prioritises network resources to particular services that are deemed important. Data is analysed in real time and, depending on which QoS rule it matches, is either transferred, delayed or discarded.
Large organisations are likely to impose some form of QoS and firewalling on their web traffic, limiting employee internet connections, for example. Given that the rules were set in accordance with company policy or budget, it is a reflection of what the organisation deems important for its employees to get work done.
For instance, it is understandable that VoIP data is given higher priority over loading web pages. A few seconds of delay when visiting a social networking site is no big deal, but such a delay while on a call is unacceptable.
In this case, the rules on prioritising internet access are in the hands of the person or company paying for the connection. Proponents of net neutrality fear that, if those rules were implemented by an ISP, it would choose rules that suited itself rather than its customers.
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