At its heart, the question is this: are all bits created equal? One camp, which includes such founding fathers of the internet as Vint Cerf and Tim Berners-Lee, argues that they are, and maintains that no content provider's traffic should be given priority over that of another. The advocates claim network providers should not prevent certain types of applications from running over the network, or ban specific devices from trying to connect to it. ISPs should also not favour traffic from one online service or content supplier over another as this may enable a larger player with deeper pockets to become dominant, even if its service is inferior in quality.
The rival lobby insists that net neutrality has never existed anyway and its introduction would pose a danger to the stability of the net's infrastructure. Network operators such as AT&T and BellSouth have been raising the spectre of tiered internet services. Although few details have been forthcoming so far, the proposition mooted is that online content and service providers should pay a tariff to ensure their traffic is given priority over that of non-paying suppliers.
Why is there such a fuss over net neutrality in the US but not in the UK?
Broadband provision is a vastly different market in the States. Most areas in the UK are serviced by many ISPs, creating wide consumer choice. In the US, many areas have a more limited choice, due to mergers between providers and what has been termed a "duopoly" between cable and DSL, so it is harder for a customer to leave his or her ISP if they don't like its policies. The battle over net neutrality is being fought on many levels, from the US Congress down to individual municipalities and the blogosphere.
So why is it becoming an issue here?
Because of the evolving nature of the traffic going over the internet. The rise of peer-to-peer (P2P) downloading is a major factor, especially as enormous, high-definition movie files become available to share, but the imminent launch of internet-based TV (IPTV) by companies such as the BBC also has the potential to put strain on networks.
This has prompted some in the industry to argue that, if service providers are not allowed to give some types of content priority over others, many users of the internet will end up experiencing a poor quality of service. Some even claim that the introduction of net neutrality would render time-sensitive applications like VoIP and home health monitoring systems unreliable.
What is more, say anti-neutrality advocates, prioritisation or "traffic-shaping" is already the way things get done, resulting in a variety of ISP business models. Net neutrality legislation, they suggest, would stop an ISP from selling different connection speeds at different prices, or advertising itself as being especially suited to gaming because it prioritises the sort of data that gamers use.
What does the pro-neutrality lobby argue?
Those in favour of net neutrality say that, without its introduction in legislation, service providers could start charging content providers like Google for the privilege of having their traffic prioritised. The content providers argue that they (and their users) already pay for bandwidth and further levies would be unjustified and anti-competitive, while those taking a broader view say that the egalitarian nature of the internet itself would be further threatened by corporate interests.
Of particular concern to the pro-neutrality camp is the idea that large service providers (think BT for a UK example), who are increasingly offering their own content, could legally start degrading users' experience of non-affiliated content in favour of what they have to sell.
Is there any chance of net neutrality legislation being introduced in the UK?
As with so many things, the power over this issue rests with the European Commission, which has not explicitly weighed into the debate. It has, however, carried out a consultation on online content asking, among other things, what respondents' views were on the subject of net neutrality. The resulting communication is only expected this July, but the question's inclusion has drawn protest from some in the broadband provision industry. Government and industry were clearly rattled enough to convene a Westminster e-forum on the subject last week.
What do Ofcom and the government say?
Neither parties seem convinced of a need for new legislation. Government representatives were taking notes at the Westminster e-forum and, at the close of the debate, appeared to suggest that there was nothing wrong with the status quo. As for Ofcom, the regulator says it already has sufficient powers to crack down on an ISP if it believes the provider is behaving anti-competitively.
Is there another way to "unblock" the internet should the need arise?
Some argue that the widespread rollout of fibre, which has much higher bandwidth capacity than copper, would be a solution. While core carrier networks are capable of handling the traffic generated by P2P and IPTV, the so-called "last mile" between those networks and people's homes or businesses in the UK is still based on copper, and it is in that final stretch where any potential blockage would appear.
In mainland Europe, a motley assortment of ISPs, municipalities and utility companies have taken the initiative, but no large-scale UK fibre deployment is on the cards yet.