The idea that all packets on the Internet should have equal access to bandwidth is closely related to the principle of net neutrality. Net neutrality is the belief that all data on the Internet should be treated equally by internet service providers (ISPs) and governments, without discriminating or charging differently by user, content, website, platform, application, or method of communication.

So what’s the deal?

Origins of the internet

Historically, the Internet was designed as a packet-switched network where each packet was routed independently of its neighbors based on the best available path at the time. This design inherently did not prioritize one packet over another based on its content.

Best effort delivery

The Internet Protocol (IP), which is the principal communications protocol in the Internet protocol suite, operates on a “best effort delivery” model. This means that it does its best to deliver packets to the destination but doesn’t guarantee timely delivery or delivery at all. Again, this principle does not inherently prioritize packets based on content.

Net neutrality debate

Over time, as the commercial importance of the Internet grew and bandwidth-intensive applications became common, ISPs began to look at ways to manage their network traffic more effectively. This led to practices like traffic shaping, where certain types of traffic (e.g., P2P file sharing) might be slowed down, and the introduction of “fast lanes” where companies could pay for better service. These practices became central to the net neutrality debate, with proponents arguing that all data should be treated equally to ensure a level playing field, and opponents arguing that ISPs should be able to manage their networks as they see fit.

Exceptions and quality of service

QoS mechanisms allow network administrators to prioritize certain types of traffic over others. For example, VoIP (Voice over IP) might be given priority over email traffic to ensure call quality. However, QoS is generally seen as different from violating net neutrality principles because it’s about managing technical requirements rather than commercial interests.

Current landscape

The treatment of net neutrality varies by country. In some regions, strict net neutrality rules have been enacted, while in others, the rules are more lax or non-existent.

In summary, the commercial evolution of the web and the growth of bandwidth-intensive applications have led to debates and practices that sometimes deviate from the principle of treating all packets equally. The concept of net neutrality encapsulates these debates and discussions.