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Net neutrality: Here's what it means, and why people are talking about it

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The term "net neutrality" has been in a lot of headlines over the past week. But while used a lot, it's kind of a complicated term, and one that many people have gotten into a habit of repeating without offering a simple explanation.

So here's a brief explainer of what net neutrality is, what it isn't, and how it might affect your day-to-day life.

What is net neutrality?

Net neutrality is the idea that everything on the Internet should get to you, the user, at the same speed. This is how it currently functions.

When you open up a website, all the site's data – the images, the text, the links, the videos – gets bundled into a packet and sent to your computer. The packets travel along lines provided by Internet Service Providers (for example: Comcast, Mediacom, Verizon or U.S. Internet).

Right now, all of those packets always travel the same speed. So the data packets from travel to your computer at the same speed all the data packets from Facebook or Netflix get there.

Essentially, all of the data – no matter where it's coming from – is treated equally.

No net neutrality

A non-neutral Internet changes this.

It would allow those Internet Service Providers (Comcast, MediaCom, Verizon, US Internet, etc.) to charge websites and companies money in order to have their packets delivered faster. If those companies don't pay the Internet Service Providers, the packets will be delivered slower than the companies who pay.

It's akin to making a freeway two lanes – one for regular cars, and one for cars that pay extra to go faster, bypassing all of the regular cars.

How does this affect me?

To put this in real terms: Imagine if you couldn't watch Netflix or Hulu in high definition anymore because they didn't want to pay for the faster delivery. Or Netflix and Hulu paid for the faster service, then passed those new costs on to you, the customer, by increasing their monthly rates.

Now, the slow down likely won't happen with those sites. They both have big money behind them, and would likely pay up in order to keep their service the best they could for customers.

But small start-ups may not be able to afford those fast lanes, giving the currently big companies a competitive advantage on what has always been a neutral playing field.

Here is John Oliver of HBO explaining some of the implications of a non-neutral Internet. (Note: Oliver uses some PG-13 language).

Who is for neutrality, and why?

Democratic Sen. Al Franken has long been a vocal advocate of maintaining net neutrality. He says:

"Telecom corporations are intent on changing the rules so that they can prioritize content they own or select — but this would give a few powerful corporations far too much control over what Minnesotans can see and do online, and Al regards protecting the free and open Internet as the most important First Amendment issue of our time."

Last week, President Barack Obama restated his support for a neutral Internet.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is currently considering a proposal (which Obama supports) that would classify the Internet Service Providers as a common-carrier service – basically a utility – meaning the FCC could maintain regulations over the service, Politifact explains.

Those regulations could include the banning of any fast lanes that would require a website to pay for better speeds. It could also cause companies to make decisions about open access based on their own financial interests, possibly controlling what people see and use on the Web, writes.

Obama's public words brought the debate back to the national surface, with Franken and fellow Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Fla.) getting into a verbal back-and-forth over the past few days, CNN says.

Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon are among the companies that have come out in favor of maintaining net neutrality.

Who's against neutrality, and why?

Many of the people against the government stepping in to enforce net neutrality describe it as another attempt by the government to regulate an open industry.

Forbes contributor Joshua Steimle wrote a piece detailing this argument in May. He said letting politicians decide how to divvy up bandwidth will turn the Internet into "another mismanaged public monopoly," and instead suggested letting the free market decide.

There is also a usage issue at hand.

As Scientific American explains, proponents of more traffic control say certain sites clog the Internet's traffic lanes more than others. For example, if Netflix is using up most of a service provider's bandwidth, shouldn't the provider be able to charge Netflix for handling a huge amount of traffic. Similarly, should a service provider be able to charge a website less for low traffic?

Others still (such as Mark Cuban), argue increased regulation will get in the way of creativity, and cause the current Internet business boom to fizzle out.

Vox also has a thorough write-up of the arguments both for and against.

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