Before we go any further, let's first define net neutrality. It sounds like something too nebulous and theoretical to be at the center of the potential demise of the internet as we know it. But the concept is not out-there at all.
"Broadly, I would say, [net neutrality] is the freedom to go wherever you want on the internet, use whatever service you want, and the internet service provider can't interfere with that," says Ernesto Falcon, a legislative council at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that is dedicated to defending digital civil liberties. One of Falcon's focuses is on open internet issues.
"As a legal matter, the ISP industry are considered 'common carriers,'" Falcon explains. "What that means is, they're required by law to operate in a non-discriminatory way in providing their communication platform. They can't block a website, they can't throttle or slow down access to websites in order to extract extra rent and they are not allowed to engage in any sort of exclusive deals with other internet companies to prioritize one set of traffic over another."
The proponents of net neutrality fear that, without the current laws, that's exactly what the big ISPs will be able to do: control the flow of content. And that could have all sorts of consequences, including limiting competition and the flow of free speech.
"As an economist, I know that when you have less competition, you see less innovation to benefit consumers and you also see higher costs for consumers," says Roberto Angulo, CEO and co-founder of AfterCollege.com, a career network for college students and recent graduates. AfterCollege was one of hundreds of smaller companies that sent a letter to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in April urging him to keep the regulations governing net neutrality.
Instead, earlier in November, Pai — a Trump appointee — declared his intention to strike down the existing Obama-era rules ensuring net neutrality in a statement he called the "Restoring Internet Freedom Order." Pai says the current rules "depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation."
His statement didn't even make it out of the FCC offices before it was blasted. FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, that same day, called Pai's order a "plan to roll back internet rights," and said in a statement, "This is ridiculous and offensive to the millions of Americans who use the Internet every day."
More from Rosenworcel: "Our internet economy is the envy of the world because it is open to all. This proposal tears at the foundation of that openness. It hands broadband providers the power to decide what voices to amplify, which sites we can visit, what connections we can make and what communities we create. It throttles access, stalls opportunity and censors content. It would be a big blunder for a slim majority of the FCC to approve these rules and saddle every internet user with the cruel consequences."