By Mason Johnson

Net neutrality is a simple concept: it’s the idea that big companies that provide Internet have to treat all websites as equals.

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What does this mean for you and me? It means that Internet service providers (ISPs) can’t divvy out Internet speed as they see fit.

Some examples:

My equestrian cat blog (cats riding horses, it’s beautiful!) must be given the same bandwidth (speed of Internet) as YouTube.

Comcast must give their customers the same amount of bandwidth when visiting CBS websites as they do NBC websites, even though Comcast would probably love to favor NBC since they own the network.

AT&T must ensure that their customers can connect to your small business’ website — maybe you own a tiny antique shop — at the same speeds as Ebay.

Net neutrality also prevents ISPs from charging customers for “priority arrangements.” This means they can’t create a multitude of different plans with different price points that favor some types of Internet traffic over others. Imagine the Internet you have now, but having to pay extra to be able to load YouTube videos.

Mostly, as you may have figured out from the above examples, net neutrality makes sure ISPs can’t discriminate against a website. It theoretically stops companies from slowing down — or “throttling” — the connection Netflix has to your home as you watch Good Burger on your Xbox.

In theory at least. Sadly, many believe companies like Comcast throttle Netflix on a regular basis, but the complicated infrastructure of the Internet has made this difficult to definitively prove. We do know that Comcast, not wanting to pay to upgrade their Internet infrastructure, recently charged Netflix a hefty sum, promising to improve Internet quality.

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Theoretically, under the FCC rules of net neutrality, ISPs aren’t supposed to discriminate against websites, even websites that take up crippling amounts of bandwidth (like Netflix). It’s unfair to consumers, who will eventually have to bear the burden of any price Comcast forces upon Netflix. (Didn’t Netflix recently raise their subscription prices? What a coincidence!)

Why was Comcast so easily able to charge Netflix? Sadly, net neutrality has died, or is at the very least in a coma. Net neutrality rules set by the FCC were thrown out by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia earlier in the year. Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, has created a proposal for new net neutrality rules, but many are opposed to it. This includes two of the five members of the FCC who will be voting on the proposal on May 15th and thousands individuals who’ve signed petitions speaking out against Wheeler’s proposal.

In an open letter to the FCC, Amazon, Dropbox, Facebook, Netflix, Zynga, Microsoft and many other Internet giants had this to say:

According to recent news reports, the Commission intends to propose rules that would enable phone and cable Internet service providers to discriminate both technically and financially against Internet companies and to impose new tolls on them. If these reports are correct, this represents a grave threat to the Internet.

Read the entire letter here.

While we won’t see the exact wording of the proposal until May 15th, which is when the five members of the FCC will vote on it, it’s come out that the proposal wants to adopt rules under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Many are perceiving this to mean that the Chairman intends to allow cable and phone companies to discriminate against websites. The FCC would ultimately regulate how much discrimination is and isn’t okay, but regulation or not, this takes away what little leverage the small guy has. If you’re that small antique shop mentioned above, ISPs could very well cut the Internet speeds for users going to your website. You could challenge the actions by ISPs as unfair, but have fun attempting to find justice without being able to match the millions an ISP can spend on lawyers.

Reacting to the harsh reaction to his new proposal, Tom Wheeler has been attempting to tweak it to please the masses. With May 15th quickly approaching, you have to wonder if making it slightly harder for an ISP to create priority arrangements (Internet fast lanes, but only if you pay up) will really fix a proposal few seem to like.

Many believe that broadband Internet needs to be reclassified, especially in the wake of the disdain for the FCC’s new plan. Currently, broadband Internet is an “information service,” which is what has made it so difficult to legislate and consistently regulate net neutrality the past decade. Net neutrality advocates believe we should instead consider the Internet a “telecommunications service” under Title II of the Communications Act, which would enact regulations similar to the ones on our phone system, making it much harder for ISPs to discriminate when dealing out bandwidth, hurting consumers in the process.

Sadly, the proposal the FCC will soon vote on would not reclassify broadband Internet as a “telecommunications service.”

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And that very brief and general explanation of net neutrality brings us to today. If you’re concerned about giant companies being given free reign over the Internet, read about which Illinois politicians you can scream at about it here.