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Net Neutrality Primer

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Is Internet service a utility, like electricity, water and gas? Or is it like cable TV, which offers different levels of access to channels and, therefore, programs and content, depending on how much you're willing to pay?

How you answer that question determines which side of the net neutrality debate you come down on. President Obama has come out on the side of being for net neutrality, comparing Internet service to utilities and saying that it's fundamental to life and the economy in the 21st century (you know, like running water).

“We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas,” he said in a recent statement unveiling a policy for net-neutrality. Though the decision is ultimately up to the Federal Communications Commission.

"It is fundamental to the 21st century economy, as essential to functioning in modern society as electricity. It is a public utility. “We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas,” the president said.

Net neutrality has been debated for years, with those on the user end typically coming out in support of it, while telecom giants, who could profit greatly by selling varying levels of bandwidth at ever-increasing premiums — and also restricting or blocking access to certain sites or offering only the narrowest bandwidth to competing interests, for example — come out against Internet speed equality for all.

What could be so wrong with faster service for things we like, you might wonder? As this Q&A over at Gawker explains, it would mean some of your favorite apps or services might become less user-friendly unless they're are willing to go the "paid prioritization" route. This ACLU FAQ cuts right to the consequences of a policy that weakens net neutrality.

"The term [paid prioritization] refers to ISPs charging third party companies for speedier access to those ISPs’ customers. So, say your ISP is Verizon, and you use both Twitter and Facebook. If Twitter pays Verizon to “prioritize” its traffic, and Facebook does not, you would likely experience faster speeds on Twitter: Its pages and apps would load more quickly, and more reliably, than Facebook. (This is what net neutrality supporters are talking about when they discuss “slow lanes” and “fast lanes” on the Internet.)"

The New York Times' Neil Irwin further simplifies the net neutrality debate in a recent piece for the paper's Upshot column. The stakes are high and, as Irwin points out, the decision "cuts to the core of what role the Internet will play in our daily lives."

To understand how high the stakes are and why Obama coming out in favor of net neutrality was such a big deal, consider this: Gizmodo collected campaign contribution data and found that cable giants have contributed significantly to the campaigns of elected officials charged with overseeing the FCC. Though the FCC will decide on net neutrality, it's up to a subcommittee of congressional leaders to oversee the FCC.

While the debate has long seemed to be an insider baseball discussion among techies, the consequences are real for this generation of moms and dads with young kids. We spend a lot of our time online, we watch a lot of streaming television. Our kids have been swiping tablets, drooling on iPhones and clogging our social media feeds since their first photo from the womb. How this plays out could fundamentally change the ease with which we've navigated and taken part in the information age.

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