Net neutrality is all over the news. 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. With that comes a decades-old 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 have 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. This would create 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 have 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 in 2014 with a D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling in favor of Verizon, which was asking for an appeal of the Federal Communications Commissions' (FCC) net neutrality rules, arguing that the agency had overstepped its legal authority. But while the court may have overruled the FCC's authority to issue a blanket prohibition against blocking sites or slowing traffic, it also upheld the agency's right to regulate broadband.

A quick timeline

After the ruling, the FCC issued a "notice of proposed rulemaking on internet regulatory structure" and opened a period of public comment on the issue of net neutrality. The agency received four million public comments, more than it received on any other issue before. By November 2014, President Barack Obama called on the FCC to take up the strongest net neutrality protections possible, which they did in February 2015. And in 2016, a federal court of appeals upheld the FCC’s new net neutrality rule.

As Wired reports, "The rules ... ban internet service providers from blocking, slowing down, or otherwise discriminating against lawful content. Without these rules in place, your home internet provider would be free to slow down your Netflix connection to try to keep you paying for cable TV. Your mobile carrier would be allowed to block Skype in order to promote its own voice plan."

What's happening now

But now, net neutrality is making headlines once again, but this time it's because the FCC voted to roll back those Obama-era protections. It appears they're going to draft a new plan, and in the meantime, they won't enforce the current regulations. Their decision led to a so-called "Day of Action," an online protest where mega-companies like Amazon, Expedia, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Netflix, Reddit, Vimeo and thousands of other tech companies showed their support by posting banners, ads, videos and messages for readers on their websites.

Meanwhile, service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon are calling on the Republican-controlled House to make a net neutrality law (though as The Verge points out in this editorial, those companies pay heavily to lobby the very legislators who would draft the bill).

As the outrage shows, internet users 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 web and sell it in bite-sized chunks.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with new information since it was originally published in January 2014.