by Mielle Sullivan, Janus Networks

Announcements by two big companies brought the issue of net neutrality back to center stage this week. Cable ISP provider Cox Communications announced that it would begin giving priority to “time sensitive data” such as streaming video, website loads and streaming games in some areas. Other data such as file sharing and software updates would be held back when the network is “congested.” Google, an open opponent of such policies, launched Measurement Lab, or M-Lab, to help users identify if their ISP provider is interfering with data flow.

The FCC sanctioned cable provider Comcast last year for a similar policy that slowed peer to peer file sharing. Comcast is appealing that decision. Cox, like Comcast, argues that data management programs like the one it is trying are necessary to ensure a smooth surfing experience as bandwidth demand rises. Net neutrality advocates say allowing ISP providers to determine speed based on the type of data gives the companies too much power and undermines the flat access to information that makes theInternet so powerful. File sharing groups have also pointed out that Cox does not define a congested network or how often it occurs.

It remains to be seen any legal action will be taken against Cox, or if Google’s M-Labs will fuel consumer distaste for data management techniques. For the moment Cox is only experimenting with its new policy in Kansas and Arkansas.

While it makes no decision on existing networks, the House approved stimulus plan does mandate that networks built with the $6 billion allocated for broadband expansion obey data neutral principles. If the bill passes the Senate it will be another victory for net neutrality, but by no means an end to the debate.