While we might not all be Internet entrepreneurs or create our own startup companies, nearly all of us are Internet consumers. So net neutrality has an impact on us.
After a lengthy political battle, the Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to approve a new set of net neutrality rules regulating the way Internet service providers can manage access to content coming through their systems. But what does that mean for those of us who are just regular Internet users?
The general concept behind net neutrality is that all content on the Internet should be treated equally: Internet service providers, like AT&T or Cox, shouldn't be able to pick what kinds of content get delivered to consumers faster. For example, the theory is that an Internet service provider shouldn't be able to demand a company like Netflix, or even a brand-new startup without much cash on hand, pony up and pay the Internet service providers to get their content delivered to consumers faster.
Service providers and other critics, however, say imposing these net neutrality rules -- and particularly the legal framework the FCC is using to do it -- would mean too much regulation from the federal government.
The true impacts of net neutrality regulations, of course, remain to be seen, as this will play out over decades to come. Plus, the debate won't end Thursday -- Internet service providers are expected to file a legal challenge to the FCC's decision. But here are some potential impacts that your average consumer might expect to see as a result of the regulations:
No big initial changes: If all goes as the FCC says it will, customers shouldn't really notice any changes, particularly initially. The Internet has thus far been largely free and open, and the rules are intended to maintain that. We've also already experienced net neutrality regulation, and most consumers probably didn't notice any
big differences -- there were rules in place between 2010 and 2014, but they were thrown out by a federal appeals court, so we've essentially been unregulated for the last year.
You can choose what you access: Essentially, net neutrality allows consumers to get anything and everything that's on the Internet. CNET gave a good comparison of what could happen without it: In the 1980s, cable companies didn't want to carry MTV, spurring subscribers to demand the channel in an "I want my MTV" campaign. Without net neutrality, Internet service providers might someday be able to make those kinds of decisions about what sites you could access or what cat videos you could watch.
More future Facebooks and Netflixes: In the larger scheme, the goal is that having these regulations in place will allow Internet companies to flourish, and create an environment where new startup companies and entrepreneurs -- a la Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, at their start -- can continue to emerge and grow without Internet service providers picking winners and losers.
But will it cost more?: The Internet service providers raise the specter that they could end up having to pay more fees under the new rules, and would pass those charges on to consumers. The FCC is imposing these rules by reclassifying broadband under the same rules it uses for the telephone network. That could give the FCC authority to do things like set prices on services and collect fees. FCC officials are adamant that they won't raise fees for Internet service providers, but critics say things could change in the future.
And will it lead to slower progress for broadband? The other argument critics use is that having to spend money complying with more regulations will lead Internet service providers to invest less in their infrastructure, and thus slow the rate of progress as we head toward faster speeds and wider access.