It has the potential to forever change how you access the internet—and how much you pay for it.
Think of the internet as a highway. Right now, all lanes are open to everyone. Nice! That means there may be traffic jams sometimes—an Apple keynote, say, or the release of a Snookie-Bieber sex tape—but it's ultimately fair. Opponents to net neutrality—ISPs like Comcast and Verizon—want to create a special high-speed toll lane, where internet providers can decide what you'll be able to see and do on the internet, and how fast.
If that metaphor sounds familiar, it's because I ripped it off. Here's Google CEO Eric Schmidt back in 2006:
Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can't pay.
So what happened since then? Well, a lot of complaining from corporations, but no real traction until the FCC manned up to make net neutrality the law of the land last fall. And Google was all for it, according their public policy blog:
The Internet was designed to empower users. Its open, "end-to-end" architecture means that users—not network providers or anyone else—decide what succeeds or fails online. It's a formula that has worked incredibly well, resulting in mind blowing innovation, incredible investment, and more consumer choice than ever.
So why is this even an issue? Because the FCC got blocked by the courts, neutering any real chance for net neutrality to be a regulated principle.
And while the government fumbled through alternate paths to preserve net neutrality, Google cozied up with Verizon to make sure those YouTube videos loaded faster than, say, Vimeo. Google couldn't beat the ISPs. So they joined them.
Here's who gets hurt when net neutrality dies: you, because you're forced into a tiered pricing structure (not unlike how you pay for extra cable channels today). Smaller content providers, who can't compete monetarily with monoliths like Google, and will be punished with slower load times for it. And innovation, generally, as control over what you see online gets consolidated even further into the hands of the internet oligarchy.
The only company with a big enough stick to help preserve net neutrality even without the FCC? That's Google. Or was, rather. But hey, at least all those highly relevant ads will be hitting your computer in record time.
In case this doesn't seem like such a big deal, take it from someone who knows a lot more about this than I do:
Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative (202-224-3121) and let your voice be heard.
Oh, right. That's from Schmidt's letter, too. And what do you know! That number still works.
Send an email to Brian Barrett, the author of this post, at email@example.com.