At least that's the verdict of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, which today struck down a Federal Communications Commission (FCC) order from 2010 that forced Internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable to abide by the principles of network neutrality. These principles broadly stipulate that ISP network management must be transparent, and that ISPs can't engage in practices that block, stifle or discriminate against (lawful) websites or traffic types on the Internet.
That's the bare bones story, wrapped in ugly acronyms (FCC, ISP, etc.). But why should you care that network neutrality ("net neutrality") may be gone for good?
1. No more net neutrality means ISPs can now discriminate against content they dislike.
Everyone gets their Internet from an Internet service provider -- an ISP like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast or Time Warner Cable. Under net neutrality rules, these ISPs have to treat all content you access over the Internet "roughly the same way" -- they can't speed up traffic from websites they like or delay competitor's traffic.
Now, with net neutrality gone, ISPs can discriminate, favoring their business partners while delaying or blocking websites they don't like. Think your cable CEO hates free online porn? Now you'll know for sure!
2. No more net neutrality means ISPs can now force websites to PAY for faster content delivery.
You know how some sites you go to just load slower than others? Usually, that's just because the slower site is image heavy, poorly coded, or dealing with intense server load. But with net neutrality gone, ISPs can now start charging hefty fees to websites that want quick content delivery -- shifting the long load times to poorer sites that can't pay up.
3. Destroying net neutrality is bad for small businesses.
Put together items one and two and it becomes clear -- negating net neutrality is bad for small businesses. If ISPs force website owners pay for faster load times, tiny retailers and personal websites will be the ones to suffer from slower content delivery.
Alternately -- or additionally -- ISPs will have no reason not to favor partner sites: Comcast, for instance, might favor the website of NBC News (which it owns) over competing outlets like Fox or CNN. Still, it's the indies again that will lose out here. While big sites might either get special treatment from their owners or have the means to pay in order to get placed in a bundle, smaller, independent networks won't get any notice from ISPs. Expand this out to music sites, web publishing, etc., and you begin to see the problem.
In extreme cases, ISPs may hinder or block content that isn't produced by partners -- much like AT&T did when it owned the telephone networks back in the day.
4. Without net neutrality, entire types of online traffic (like Netflix) may be in jeopardy.
Netflix watchers and BitTorrent users might want to beware -- soon your beloved services may not work like they used to. Now that net neutrality's down for the count, ISPs can discriminate against entire types of traffic: For instance, an ISP could slow or block all peer-to-peer file sharing, or all online video streaming.
From an ISP's perspective, discriminating against some traffic types makes business sense: Many ISPs are also cable television providers, which means the "cord-cutting" enabled by peer-to-peer and streaming online video isn't good for their bottom line.
5. Without net neutrality, your ISPs can make even more money without actually improving the Internet.
Right now, America's broadband is slow. It's slow because ISPs can already make gobs of money by charging the rich a ton for high-quality Internet while leaving the rest of America with subpar (or no) service.
Now, with net neutrality gone, ISPs will be able to make even more money off their existing customer base. They won't need to improve service or bring broadband to rural areas because they'll be able to keep growing (financially, at least) by charging content providers more for faster delivery and charging customers more for faster access. In all likelihood, Tuesday's ruling means the problems with America's Internet will be magnified.
Clarification: A previous hypothetical scenario in this article implied Time Warner Corporation still owned Time Warner Cable, which was spun off in 2009. The example has been changed.