In a landmark move Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission approved new rules supporting net neutrality. The regulations aim to ban Internet service providers (ISPs) from giving preferential treatment to companies that would pay extra to get their content to consumers.
The debate over this principle has raged for years. Proponents like Tumblr CEO David Karp say net neutrality protects the little guys, ensuring that their voices have as much of an opportunity to be heard as those belonging to large conglomerates.
Opponents, including several ISPs like Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, argue that services like Netflix and Amazon should have to pay for the disproportionately high bandwidth they use. Streaming a movie takes a much greater toll on a network than loading a blog, for example. During peak hours in North America, Netflix accounts for over one third of "downstream" Internet traffic, which is the data received (rather than sent) by computers.
So, what will this mean for you?
Your Broadband Internet Is A Utility
You'll still get Internet service from your provider (Time Warner Cable, Comcast, Verizon and so on), but the government will classify service differently than how it did before. The FCC's decision Thursday means broadband is considered a public utility, basically like electricity or telephone service.
The classification is important, because it prevents providers from charging more for services like Netflix to reach audiences.
No Service Interruptions On Sites Like Netflix
What could have been.
The new ruling lays the groundwork for all services to be treated equally by ISPs.
Put in simple terms, net neutrality means that telecom companies would not be able to block or slow access to content on a whim -- as Comcast has been guilty of in the past -- meaning a streaming news video on CNN would be delivered to your device just the same as a blogger's eye-witness clip published on a smaller platform.
ISPs won't be able to pick and choose which sites run well on your connection.
Fewer Gatekeepers Controlling Information
Tumblr's David Karp wrote on Politico that eliminating net neutrality "would make the Internet work a lot more like cable TV," where programs pass through a series of gatekeepers before they're produced and presented on your screen.
A helpful New York Times video from 2014 makes it even clearer: Think of content online as "packages" that need to be sorted and delivered to you by a provider like Time Warner Cable. With net neutrality protections, everything must be sorted and delivered in equal measure. Without them, Netflix could, in theory, outbid Hulu for premium delivery on your Internet provider, slowing rival services to a halt and giving Netflix's streaming program a leg up in the marketplace simply because it was able to pay for it.
Netflix and Google have been among the most vocal companies speaking in favor of net neutrality. To them, a "free and open" Internet is key to allowing innovation. Too many gatekeepers, and "smaller, less-moneyed" voices could be left behind, as Emily Peck put it for The Huffington Post.
As mentioned, net neutrality isn't a done deal. Republicans are investigating the decision, and lawsuits are expected. Some feel that net neutrality will slow investment in new Internet infrastructure.
Regardless, Thursday's decision won't affect your Internet in the immediate future. Regular users will be able to access to all of the services and websites they usually enjoy. (At least, as long as they're legal.)