Odds are, you probably clicked on this article from some link on social media, or a Google search, or it was sent to you by a friend, or you found it while surfing around the Parents website. But what if you had to pay extra to get access to Facebook? Or if your internet provider throttled Google's powerful search so it was slow and made you use their own proprietary (and maybe lower quality) version? Or if, as parents, you had to pay extra for a kid-friendly internet suite of apps for your kids, along with the adult internet you want?
That's what FCC chairman Ajit Pai potentially set in motion, when he and the FCC board opted to repeal net neutrality in December 2017.
What is net neutrality?
Basically, net neutrality boils down to this: Your internet provider (or wireless company, if you're surfing the web on a smartphone) is required to provide access to all of the internet to you, with no preferential treatment. So it can't, for instance, slow down Netflix so it buffers badly, and ramp up the speed for its own video-on-demand service. And it can't charge more for you to access certain channels than others. Instead, it can charge you (as many do) by the amount of bandwidth you use, rather than what sites you want to access.
"Net neutral" also means these internet providers can't charge the websites you're accessing over the internet more to get faster load times, for instance. Those fees, net neutrality fans argue, could squash innovation, making it harder for small startups to break through against the tech giants.
Why should you care?
Countries like Portugal, which doesn't have net neutrality rules, have found that internet has become more expensive and more difficult to navigate—think of those cable bills with different packages. One provider in Portugal offers packages that lump together popular apps and services—but leave their competition out in the cold. Comcast has changed its net neutrality statement on its website to remove language around paid prioritization, which critics worry means they're gearing up to start charging websites more to be delivered quickly through their service.
Why are some people against it?
People who are against net neutrality argue that decreased regulation of internet providers could result in new innovation and technology, and that some provisions that remain—such as requiring internet providers to fully disclose when they prioritize certain content or throttle other parts of the internet—will still serve the purpose.
What's the latest?
California recently lobbed the first challenge to the net neutrality rollback by passing its own net neutrality law in late September that brought back many of the protections the FCC took away. Immediately, the Department of Justice sued to keep the law from being implemented. At the moment, the law is in limbo while California awaits a ruling in the lawsuit.
The California law may be the highest profile attempt, but at least two dozen other states and many big internet companies have filed suit to bring back net neutrality, so the debate promises to rage on.
In the meantime, the U.S. has lost some of its standing as the land of the free—at least as far as the internet is concerned. The Freedom House’s annual report on internet freedom downgraded the U.S. ranking on Internet freedom, while countries like Estonia and Iceland have more web freedom than we do.