5 things you should know about net neutrality

Americans are in love with the Internet. They would give up television, their landline phones and even their cell phones before losing Internet access, surveys show.

Americans also hate it when the things they love change. There's a very real possibility that the structure of the Internet could change, now that the Federal Communications Commission is tweaking the rules. And that's caused an uproar among some groups who worry that the Internet of the future isn't going to be much like the Internet we know and love today.

President Obama makes strong push for net neutrality

The issue is known in shorthand as net neutrality, and it's becoming one of the most important public policy debates in years. The debate is confusing and fraught with complexity, however, and many Americans haven't been following all its twists and turns.

So for all of you who have been too busy looking at vacation pictures on Facebook or playing "Clash of Clans" to follow how the backbone of the Internet may be changing, here are five things to know about net neutrality:

What is it? So far, all content has driven down the Internet's "information superhighway," to borrow the groan-inducing phrase, at the same speed. Internet service providers treat Netflix, YouTube and Facebook all equally. They don't favor one over the other, and customers expect the same access to everything online.

But the FCC is looking at changing the rules for consumer broadband Internet. Some possible changes could allow broadband companies to block or slow down content, or to charge content providers more to get on an Internet fast lane. The worry is that a company like Netflix might have to pay more to get on that fast lane, and will then pass on that fee to users.

Why is the FCC doing this? Actually, a federal court blew this thing out of the water in January when it looked at a lawsuit brought by Verizon and, for the second time, threw out the rules that require broadband providers to play nice with everyone equally.

So now, the FCC has to figure out new rules that keep the courts happy. For the record, the FCC says it opposes Internet fast lanes. "The Internet must not advantage some to the detriment of others," said chairman Tom Wheeler Monday.

However, the FCC proposed rules in April that did in fact allow for paid Internet fast lanes. The rules were pounced on by critics as discriminatory.

FCC holds forum on net neutrality

What's President Obama doing about it? He can't do much. The FCC is independent and can decide whatever it wants. But Obama can let his opinions be known, and he did that Monday when he said there shouldn't be any fast lanes or tiers for Internet access. He wants the FCC to treat Internet service as if it's a utility, like electricity or water.

Internet providers were, naturally, opposed to the idea of being regulated as a utility. "Such a move would set the industry back decades, and threaten the private sector investment that is critically needed to ensure that the network can meet surging demand," said Scott Belcher, chief executive of the Telecommunications Industry Association.

Utility or not? This gets to the heart of the current debate on net neutrality. Is the Internet necessary enough that it should be viewed as a public utility rather than its current classification as an information service? Obama joined advocates in pushing the FCC to treat the Internet as a utility by classifying it under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would give the commission legal authority over Internet providers.

But Republican lawmakers and big Internet service companies said this would be a horrible move. Verizon issued a statement saying a reclassification would hurt competition, innovation and an open Internet. The company also hinted at "strong legal challenges" if the FCC went down that road.

What's next? The FCC says it's going to offer some revised Internet rules next week, with the goal of voting on them in a December meeting. It's unclear if Obama's involvement will cause the commission to delay its timeline. Even if the FCC moves forward, this thing is far from over. Both sides feel very strongly about the issue and will likely tie it up in the courts for years.