Net neutrality is so contentious that many people debating it cannot even agree on a definition. Traditional allies and foes have rearranged themselves to form strange new alliances and divisions. Even the founders of the Internet and the World Wide Web -- including some who worked alongside each other -- are at odds over how to move forward.
The Gun Owners of America and the Christian Coalition have lined up next to MoveOn, the American Civil Liberties Union and Democratic presidential candidates to support what they describe as a federal anti-discrimination measure. Telecommunications and cable companies competing for Internet subscribers are on the other team in the fight against net neutrality, which they argue is a biased and unclear term for laws that would stifle innovation.
Columbia University Law Professor Timothy Wu is widely credited with coining the term net neutrality in a paper he published in 2002. He describes it as a network design issue based on the idea that "information networks are often more valuable when they are less specialized -- when they are a platform for multiple uses, present and future."
"A useful way to understand this principle is to look at other networks, like the electric grid, which are implicitly built on a neutrality theory," Wu explains on a site he created to explain the concept. "The general purpose and neutral nature of the electric grid is one of the things that make it extremely useful. The electric grid does not care if you plug in a toaster, an iron, or a computer. Consequently, it has survived and supported giant waves of innovation in the appliance market. The electric grid worked for the radios of the 1930s works for the flat screen TVs of the 2000s. For that reason the electric grid is a model of a neutral, innovation-driving network."
The Internet now allows information to move in data packets through networks of computers and routers on a "best efforts basis." In other words, the system routes packets with little regard for what type of information or applications they contain or who created them.
Proponents of net neutrality argue that cable and telecommunications form a duopoly that threatens the current system. They say that, without some type of anti-discrimination law or standards, cable and telecommunications companies could control users' access by blocking content from competitors, favoring certain applications, charging higher rates to deliver information into people's homes and offices and failing to inform people of their capacity.
Since cable companies act both as Internet service providers and content creators, net neutrality proponents argue that they have a financial interest in prioritizing their own content and threatening online speech and democracy. Likewise, telecommunications companies acting as service providers could degrade Voice over Internet Protocol, which in many cases allows people to make phone calls cheaper over the Internet than over traditional phone lines.
Some telecommunications executives have argued that they should be able to prioritize information from sources paying higher fees or serving higher purposes. A prioritized system, which would create an Internet fast lane for higher-paying content providers, would help fund network improvements, according to Internet service providers.
Net neutrality opponents, including President Bill Clinton's former press secretary Mike McCurry, also argue that Internet service providers should be able to direct heavy traffic and screen out some material, like viruses and spam. They say some content, like medical information, is more important -- and therefore should take priority over -- other information. They argue that innovative applications in medicine and other fields will spring from improved services levels guaranteed through higher premiums and government regulation would kill the freedom that has allowed the Internet to flourish.
Both sides look to the origins of the Internet and its founders to support their points.