Is Google really using the power of its content delivery platform (that’s ‘search’ to you and me) to sell out the ordinary Internet user?

According to US news titles, the Internet’s biggest content player, Google, has come to some sort of yet-to-be announced agreement with Verizon which will challenge the hallowed idea of ‘net neutrality’, that content from all websites on the Net should be given equal rights.

The facts have yet to be confirmed, but if the story has substance prepare for a lot of people in net neutrality camp to get very very upset.

The arguments over net neutrality quickly become abstract, but what might an Internet without it look like? And could it be made to work to work technically?

To take an obvious example, everyone currently accessing YouTube in developed countries (ie where Google has data centres) gets the same traffic priority no matter where they are or how much they paid.

Remove the principle of traffic neutrality, which is currently enforced by regulators in the US, it would be possible to offer some users faster, high-definition access, leaving everyone else to put up with grainy, glitchy access.

US consumers would pay companies such as Verizon for this, or possibly Google would subsidise the fee by paying Verizon. The effect on companies unable to grease an ISP’s palm - for instance a startup - could dent innovation, even stop the rise of the next disruptive web force, say critics.

They have a point, no matter what US regulators think of this kind of deal. It’s hard to see the EU putting up with this sort of cosy arrangement to suit not least because it hands huge power to a small clutch of US super-companies, one group of which control Net access, the other, Google, which increasingly controls where those subscribers go once connected.

EU communications commissioner (and part-time heroine), Neelie Kroes, has already made her feelings plain on the subject of neutrality. The US legislators can do their worst but they are not the only force that matters any longer. It is hard to see how this could be overcome by any group of companies.

Here’s the creepy bit worth remembering - it turns out that Google, Verizon and others have already built their own private Internet out of hyper-connected data centres peering one another with fibre.

As Arbor Networks pointed out some months ago, by summer 2009 Google accounted for between six and ten percent of all Internet traffic and was sitting at the heart of a giant spider’s web peering it to an increasingly exclusive list of web hosts. It is, on this measure, the first Internet mega-host.

In 2007, a core 50 percent of web traffic went through 10,000 hosts; by 2009, that was down to only 150 companies and you’d bet the number will have come down further in 2010.

No guesses for working out which names sit on that list, but Verizon, Comcast and AT&T will feature prominently.

What people call the Internet is becoming, in terms of the most trafficworthy sites that feed content such as video, something delivered by these companies almost exclusively. These companies have huge market power.

You bet Google and Verizon can make the subtle loosening net neutrality work if they want to (and we don't know that this is true yet of course). Out of sight, they have already built the infrastructure to make it possible.