It's all over the news: Net neutrality is dead. But what the heck is it?

We've all come to rely on the Internet for almost every aspect of our lives — work, communication, shopping, entertainment, even medical advice — and there's been a slow rumbling of debate about how this new frontier should be managed. After all, the Internet, like any infrastructure, has a limited capacity, so how should service providers organize and prioritize what information is accessed and by whom? 

On the one hand, we've had proponents of net neutrality — folks who argue that a free and democratic Internet requires equal access, and that unless net neutrality is enforced, telecom providers will seek to sell the fastest traffic to the highest bidder, creating a situation where companies can ensure "premium" service by simply paying more for it, and forcing subscribers to buy services they would otherwise never want. On the other hand, we've had defenders of "free market" principles, suggesting that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should have the right to decide how they monetize their services. 

All this came to a head this week with a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Verizon, which was asking for an appeal of the Federal Communications Commissions' net neutrality rules, arguing that the agency had overstepped its legal authority. Here's how the Huffington Post describes the worst-case scenarios that could result from the ruling: 

The obvious business model for ISPs without net neutrality is one much like cable television, said [Derek] Turner. [Turner is a freelance journalist and research director for the media advocacy group Free Press.] They'll offer "bundles" that curate the sites you see. The cheapest, fastest bundles will probably include the sites that pay ISPs the most — most likely the big boys, including Amazon and Netflix. Another possibility is that ISPs could bundle popular sites with less-popular ones that are willing to pay. If you pay for a Netflix bundle, for example, you may be forced to use the Bing search engine.
Meanwhile Kevin Werbach of The Atlantic suggests we all need to relax. The court may have overruled the FCC's authority to issue a blanket prohibition against blocking sites or slowing traffic, but it also did something else: it upheld the agency's right to regulate broadband. As Werbach points out, this is no small deal: 
We shouldn’t pass over this fact lightly. Ever since the net neutrality debate began a decade ago, there has been a basic question about whether the FCC could impose obligations on broadband services. Verizon saw its legal challenge as a way not just to beat back net neutrality, but to foreclose any FCC regulation of its Internet-based offerings under the First Amendment. The court refused to go there. 
According to Werbach, what we'll now see is not another blanket prohibition, but rather an FCC that's empowered to act against specific market abuses. Such a system will require vigilance and action, says Werbach, with companies being publicly shamed if they step out of line. But as the outrage over the recent ruling itself shows, Web citizens are known to act fast when their Internet freedoms are perceived to be under threat, so an ISP will have to think long and hard before trying to parcel up the Internet and sell it in bite-sized chunks. 

Exactly how this will play out remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: the Internet is now an absolutely central part of our lives. Getting to the bottom of how it operates, and who gets to control it, is a matter for all of us to engage in. 

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