The free dictionary defines a neutral network as one that is free of restrictions on what kind of equipment may be attached and which modes of communication allowed where communication isn't unreasonably degraded by other communication streams that would be considered neutral.
There's a long-standing debate between the private companies who provide most Internet access in the U.S. and a growing group of net neutrality activists. Many Internet Service Providers argue that without the ability to restrict activity on their networks, their service will be compromised: peer to peer traffic may slow down a network, it could be more difficult to implement new services and ISPs may have a harder time protecting users against viral attacks. On the other side, proponents of the open Internet claim that network neutrality is crucial to promoting competition and innovation and protecting the free exchange of data and ideas.
The FCC currently offers four guiding principles on net neutrality, which were released in the 2005 Broadband Policy Statement (emphasis theirs):
1. To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.
2. To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to run applications and use services of their choice, subject to the needs of law enforcement.
3. To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to connect their choice of legal devices that do not harm the network.
4. To encourage broadband deployment and preserve and promote the open and interconnected nature of the public Internet, consumers are entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers, and content providers.
Although these four principles haven't been made into rules, the FCC has used them to enforce broadband policy on a case-by-case basis. In 2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast violated these principles by slowing peer-to-peer traffic. Comcast retaliated by suing the FCC last fall, claiming that the agency doesn't have the authority to enforce 'guidelines.'
Between incidents like the Comcast lawsuit and growing pressure from net neutrality advocates, the FCC has been under significant pressure to solidify their broadband policies - and that's exactly what they're trying to do in their October meeting. In addition to making the four preceding guidelines into rules, Chairman Genachowski has proposed that the agency incorporate the following principles:
5. Internet access providers shouldn't be allowed to discriminate against particular Internet applications or content while still allowing for reasonable network management.
6. Internet access providers should be transparent about the network management practices they implement.
So what does this have to do with education? Net neutrality is good for students. As students move into the workforce, an open Internet will help keep the market accessible for the development of new ideas, projects and companies. Students also tend to be major users of services like peer-to-peer file sharing (not just the illegal kind) as well as other emerging technologies that could easily be quashed by private companies seeking to eliminate competition.
No matter what side of the debate you're on, this is an important stage in the development of American policy on broadband and other networks, and your voice can be heard. The FCC is seeking to draw the public into the discussion. Although formal commenting hasn't opened yet, the FCC has launched OpenInternet.gov. Check out this website for more information on net neutrality in the U.S., and join the discussion on their forums.