There's a lot of loose talk about network neutrality these days. Do they mean neutral as in Switzerland, or neutral as in PRNDL (think car transmission)?

There’s a lot of loose talk about network neutrality these days. Do they mean neutral as in Switzerland, or neutral as in PRNDL (think car transmission)?

Network neutrality means freedom to compete honestly, freedom to innovate and, ultimately, freedom to express ideas.

Net neutrality is summarized in three principles: nondiscrimination, interconnection and access.

Nondiscrimination means all data are treated the same; a bit is a bit is a bit. This is the heart of digital convergence. Data traffic is transported across a network without regard to where it comes from, where it’s going and what it contains (movies, e-commerce or voice, for example.) Nondiscrimination restrains the network operator from discriminating for or against traffic on the network, including its own.

Interconnection means that every network (data, Internet, mobile telephone, landline telephone, etc.) has a right to connect with every other network at reasonable commercial rates. Without interconnection, there is no “network.” The Internet is often described as a “network of networks.” The “network effect” says that networks increase in value as they grow; interconnection accelerates the growth of network value as well as value to consumers, content producers and our society.

Access means that any user on the network has the ability to reach any other user on any other network, without discrimination or interference. For example, an e-mail sent from a user at a Seattle Internet service provider (ISP) can reach a user at an ISP in Moscow. “User” also means devices, such as modems, telephones, computers, fax machines or fileservers. Access rights are what permit fax machines to talk to each other across phone or computer networks; they permit one user to send baby pictures to another user on a different network.

The three principles of net neutrality are simple and powerful. These three principles are the reason the global Internet can exist. The architecture of the Internet, reflected in its protocols such as TCP/IP and HTML, assumes that these principles apply on all networks, in all connected countries.

If a different set of principles applied from country to country, or if they changed without global agreement, it would be impractical to build software and hardware that would work on the Internet. It would be impossible to take a laptop computer or phone from the U.S. to Canada or Europe, as you can today.

“Tiered service” violates the principle of nondiscrimination when a network operator degrades traffic on the network to make preferred traffic “work better.” The purpose of degrading traffic is to force customers to move to services owned and operated by the network owners, such as IPTV (Internet Protocol Television) and VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol). Research has conclusively demonstrated the best way to cure bottlenecks is to build better networks.

Peer-to-peer, or P2P, applications were invented as a bandwidth conservation tool because the networks in the U.S. are so underdeveloped for the needs of the consuming public. P2P is a workaround to contend with this situation, by avoiding large downloads that really would clog the network and slam file servers. Network operators throttle down P2P traffic because it often comes from applications like video or VOIP that compete with the offerings of Comcast, AT&T and others.

P2P applications include Bittorrent, developed by a programmer in Bellevue. Other popular P2P applications include Skype and Joost, which also compete against products offered by cable and telecom ISPs. The irony is these programs help protect networks from needless downloads and redundant traffic. They are the HOV lanes and van pools of the information highway.

Would the lonely programmer in Bellevue or the Estonian coders behind Skype and Joost have had any success if they had to negotiate deals with every ISP in the U.S. before launching their applications? Would any competitors arise to challenge the incumbent U.S. cable and telecom operators, whether on features, convenience or price?

Whether you call it network management, application discrimination or an improved user experience, all the opponents of network neutrality mean one thing: stifling competition and innovation. They have no use for it, and it threatens their business model.

To return us to the productive landscape that delivered the Internet, legislation will have to enact rules to restore network neutrality as law.

Three simple principles: nondiscrimination, interconnection and access. Remember these three principles and their corollaries, competition and innovation, and you’ll know everything you need to about net neutrality.

Michael Weisman is a Seattle attorney whose expertise is in telecommunications law and policy. He is a policy adviser to public interest advocacy groups.