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What is 'net neutrality' and why are you hearing about it?

The FCC will vote on the repeal of net neutrality on Dec. 14, 2017. (Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File) The FCC will vote on the repeal of net neutrality on Dec. 14, 2017. (Source: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

(RNN) - On Tuesday, the Federal Communications Commission announced it will introduce a plan that completely repeals net neutrality.

But what is net neutrality, and why is its potential removal an issue that has the internet up in arms?

What is it?

Net neutrality is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as a requirement that internet service providers treat all data the same regardless of its source or destination.

This means that the information you send to your friends, family or colleagues is protected; it cannot be edited, changed, analyzed or even looked at in any unique way. Under net neutrality, your information is as sacred as anyone's, as is your ability to browse the web.

Proponents of net neutrality's dismantling - like FCC Chairman and repeal designer Ajit Pai - argue that private sector investment in the internet space will create jobs, economic growth, and prosperity. 

"Encouraged by light-touch regulation, private companies invested over $1.5 trillion in nearly two decades to build out American communications networks," Pai wrote in The Wall Street Journal on Tuesday. "Without having to ask anyone’s permission, innovators everywhere used the internet’s open platform to start companies that have transformed how billions of people live and work."

But later in Pai's article, he writes "Instead the FCC simply would require internet service providers to be transparent so that consumers can buy the plan that’s best for them."

This is where those against the repeal aren't backing down.

The issue

Consumers having access to "the plan that's best for them" is great - so long as internet service providers don't take advantage of their customers. Repealing net neutrality would allow ISPs to ratchet down the internet's accessibility, as well as the freedom of its users.

While likely exaggerated, the below graphic is an indicator of what ISP customers might expect if net neutrality is repealed.

(Source: Techdirt)

In addition to your browsing's privacy being compromised, users might have to pay extra to access parts of the internet which were previously free. If you want to watch Netflix, something that uses a lot of bandwidth, a provider could charge you more for both access to the service and your data usage.

Pai's concern is pointed toward the corporations and companies providing access.

"The effect has been particularly serious for smaller internet service providers," Pai writes. "They don’t have the time, money or lawyers to cut through a thicket of complex rules."

But should the customer be forced to navigate a thicket of potential extra fees and rules?

The history

Earlier in 2017, the FCC's first pass at repealing net neutrality failed in the face of extreme protest. Amazon, Reddit, Vimeo and many other websites joined with customers in saying "no" to proposed deregulation. 

According to technology website The Verge, the real winners from net neutrality's end are the telecommunication giants like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T. All of these companies - and many more - have devoted millions of lobbying dollars to repealing net neutrality.

And while Pai cites "smaller internet service providers" as a lynchpin reason for removing net neutrality, not everyone stands behind the idea. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, some smaller providers actually prefer working under net neutrality because it provides them shelter from larger companies and allows them to compete in saturated markets.

In a June 27 open letter to Pai, 40 small ISPs said "We write to inform you that as Internet Service Providers located across the country that we are in full support" of net neutrality.

However, in economic terms, Pai has a good point: he says that since net neutrality's application, "broadband network investment has dropped by 5.6 percent - the first time a decline has happened outside of a recession."

What's next?

The FCC's upcoming repeal vote will take place on Dec. 14. "If it passes," Pai writes, "Washington will return to the bipartisan approach that made the internet what it is today."

While Pai urges the FCC and Congress to remove net neutrality, opposition has already started to form.

Battle for the Net - who devised the protest against net neutrality's repeal earlier this year - has begun calling internet users to action. The website urges users to contact lawmakers: a live counter showed that 21,736 calls to Congress and the FCC were made on Tuesday alone.

Battle for the Net says that 5,000,000 emails and 120,000 calls were made to Congress in the earlier protest.

But no matter where you stand on the issue, you'll likely see the words "net neutrality" quite a bit over the next 23 days. 

Copyright 2017 Raycom News Network. All rights reserved.

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