Awhile ago, I was asked to provide a definition of net neutrality. I’ll repeat the definition I provided then, for posterity (or posterior) because folks seem to like it:

There are lots of people throwing around ideas of what they think Net Neutrality is. For some, it is a convenient hook for other unrelated concepts like free speech and open source software. For many, it is a crutch for concepts like the ‘gift economy’ (free as in free beer) or various libertarian/neocon ideas (Esther Dyson stating in the WSJ that the Internet has always been unregulated.)

I can’t address all the ways that various groups that are part of this coalition are choosing to use the words Net Neutrality. Its obvious that there is quite a bit of loose talk going on.

I can offer what the term means in the world of law and policy, where it has been adopted as a legal or policy regulatory regime.

Net Neutrality is short for “Network Neutrality”. It is a term that is intended to apply to all networks, not just the Internet. Network Neutrality means that ALL networks must be operated on neutrality principles. Cable, satellite, telecom, data, leased data, video, etc.

There are three neutrality principles. They are 1) non-discrimination, 2) interconnection, and 3) access.

1) Non-discrimination means that all bits are treated the same by the network operator, including its own bits (bit parity). In the convergent environment all data is ‘just bits.’The network operator cannot discriminate against (or in favor of) any bits/content/traffic over the network, except as required to protect the security and quality of the network. For example, a network operator could, if it was possible, filter out DOS attacks, computer viruses, or spam.

This is simplistic, but that’s my purpose. I wanted to give a very concise definition. Obviously there are examples that challenge the paradigm (SIP, SPAM), but the principle remains the same.

2) Interconnection means that any network can connect to any other network and move traffic over and between the two networks, at reasonable non-discriminatory rates. Without interconnection there is no neutrality, because there is no network. There must be a ‘right of interconnection’ so that a network operator knows that it can get its traffic carried on rival networks.

Neutrality means nothing if there is no way to know that you can send traffic to end users that terminate on another network. For example, someone sending traffic on a telecom network must be able to know that they can send traffic to an end user on the cable operator’s network.

This resembles common carriage. It would make every network operator very similar to a common carrier as to the network operations, only.

3) Access means that any end user can send traffic to any other end user, without discrimination or interference. Don’t worry about the non-discrimination stuff right now. The important principle is being able to reach an end user, emphasis on the ‘end’. This is a consumer-oriented restatement of Prof. Lessig’s ‘end-to-end’ principle.

End users could be individuals, but they are also devices and even other networks. For example, a modem must be able to speak with another device at the other end of the network. An individual must be able to email to another individual on another network, but it also applies to voice, video, or files. Access also applies to video networks (at reasonable fees), telecom (for competition in local and long distance and for services like voicemail, for instance), and data (so that any router or modem can be attached, like a wi-fi router).

That’s all there is to network neutrality. We can discuss how to present definition, but this is the actual, real-world, working definition that has been enacted into law in the other developed countries.

That’s all there is folks. Not much more to it , really. Another interesting swing at a definition is from Susan Crawford. Kevin Werbach was initially a little standoffish on NN, but now he has inhaled and he even came over on my interconnection principle. Interconnection has always been a principle of network neutrality. After all, if there is no interconnection, there is no network. Its simple, really. I made this point in my 2004 paper on the subject, but long before that the EU enshrined it in law in the Open Networks Provision Directive of 1990.