Photo by Tyler Meuter

Net neutrality is one of the most pressing political issues of our generation and will decide the fate of the internet as we know it.

The fundamental tenet of net neutrality states that all internet service providers (ISPs) must treat all traffic on the internet equally, regardless of its content, source, or destination. This means that ISPs cannot restrict people’s access to certain websites or give preferential treatment to one particular website’s data over another’s. Basically, it says that no matter what website the user wishes to visit, he is able to do it fairly without any influence from his ISP.

However, in the past few years ISPs have been lobbying congress to pass measures that would effectively end net neutrality and completely change the user experience of the internet. The ISPs want to have the ability to discriminate the traffic flowing through their networks and give preferential treatment to some data streams over others. They justify their position by stating that without net neutrality, they would build “fast lanes” to certain websites to the benefit of the consumer. However, this power could be abused, to the point where instead of building faster lanes to their desired websites, the ISPs simply allow routes to most destinations to degrade while only maintaining the lanes to their own preferred sites.

The death of net neutrality would lead to further traffic discrimination and control over the internet for ISPs. Imagine a world in which people purchase internet packages in the same way that they currently buy cable TV, where access to certain websites is only available through packages that must be purchased separately.

Let’s say that in this world, Comcast offers their basic internet package for $100 a month. This package grants customers access to the most basic and popular websites, such as Google, Yahoo, Wikipedia and Amazon. Comcast also offers premium packages for only $20 each; some examples include the sports package (to access ESPN, FOX Sports and any other sports news or fantasy website), the social package (for Facebook, Twitter,  Instagram, etc.) and the entertainment package (for Netflix, Spotify, YouTube and other streaming sites).

Want to play games online through Steam? If you’re a Comcast customer then you’re out of luck, because Valve signed an exclusive contract with Verizon Fios, so only Fios customers are allowed to play. Do you have an idea for a new web service that you would like to share with the world? You had better hope that the ISPs don’t see it as a threat to their business, or they will never let it see the light of day. The free and open internet that we enjoy today is replaced with a completely locked-down model where the ISPs hold all the power.

Furthermore, ISPs would have the ability to squash website and web applications that serve as competition to some of the ISPs other products and services. Let’s further pick on Comcast, who also offers both digital cable and home phone services. If net neutrality were eliminated, Comcast could simply refuse to route traffic for Skype and Google Hangout calls, since they pose a threat to Comcast’s phone service. Throughput to and from Netflix, Hulu and other streaming sites could be reduced to maddeningly slow speeds in order to keep people paying for cable.

Finally, ISPs would have the power to censor any content they want. Imagine that a massive news story develops, in which Comcast requires employees steal purses from old ladies as part of the new hire initiation process. In this post net neutrality world, Comcast internet customers may never be exposed this horrifying news,  Comcast could easily censor all websites that discuss it.

The death of net neutrality would be the death of a free and open exchange of ideas. It would stagnate innovation, cripple some of today’s most popular and important websites, and diminish the day-to-day lives of the general public, all just to give even more authority to some of the most powerful entities in the nation.