The basic principle behind net neutrality, which was strongly endorsed in a speech last week by Julius Genachowski (PDF), the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, is that access to the Internet must be open and nondiscriminatory. If you connect to the Net via a cable television line, for example, that cable provider cannot cut a special deal with, say, Hulu, and transmit Hulu Internet video streams at high resolution while limiting YouTube videos to low-resolution, or blocking them entirely.
Similarly, an Internet provider would not be able to provide a special “fast lane” to, say, the Google News page, unless whatever deal Google (GOOG) cut to get that fast lane was also available to all other content providers. The legal underpinning of this approach, long enshrined in telecommunications regulation, is that network providers must act as “common carriers,” offering access to their networks on an equitable basis and without regard to the nature of the traffic being carried.
In principle, I’m very much in favor of net neutrality; nothing would put us (and many other small companies) out of business faster than to be forced into an Internet “slow lane” because we didn’t have the muscle to cut a deal with the Verizons (VZ) and AT&Ts (ATT) of the world. Genachowski rightly stressed in his speech that the fundamentally open nature of the Internet is what has enabled it to become such an incredible platform for innovation.
Yet I know enough about the telecom world to know that the net neutrality question is not entirely cut-and-dried...