What is net neutrality, and how does it affect you?

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SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- “Net neutrality” is a simple concept concealed by countless buzzwords.

"Net neutrality is just the idea that internet service providers can't discriminate their traffic," Drury professor Shannon McMurtrey says.

Confused? Let’s break it down.

An internet service provider (ISP) is the company you get your internet service from. For most people in Springfield, that’s AT&T, Mediacom, CenturyLink, and others. There are other major providers like Comcast, Verizon, and Time-Warner.

The “traffic” McMurtrey speaks of is any piece of data that passes through the internet. Could be an email, could be a web site, could be a movie.

Proponents of net neutrality want ISP’s to allow all (lawful) data to pass through their services equally. What they’re afraid of is ISP’s playing favorites with some companies that might be willing to pay for their traffic to be prioritized.

"Verizon recently bought Yahoo!,” McMurtrey said, “so maybe when you go do a search on Google, Verizon could slow that traffic down, but when you go do a search on Yahoo! they may speed that traffic up and make it feel like you're having a better experience with that search engine."

But right now, that’s expressly forbidden under the FCC’s regulations, which the Obama-era FCC put in place in 2015. They re-classified the internet as a “Title-II” utility, which gave them more regulatory control.

Current FCC Chair Ajit Pai, whom President Trump appointed to lead the commission this year, plans to reverse this classification, and remove the restrictions.

“The plan to restore Internet freedom will bring back the same legal framework that was governing the Internet three years ago today and that has governed the Internet for most of its existence,” Pai said in a speech this week. “Let me repeat this point. The plan will bring back the same framework that governed the Internet for most of its existence.”

He called the current rules, “heavy-handed micromanagement,” and says they are to blame for a 5 percent dip in broadband network investment since they were enacted.

“However well intentioned, they’re hurting the very small providers and new entrants that are best positioned to bring additional competition into the marketplace,” Pai said.

Still, net neutrality proponents say this comes down to a matter of trust.

“Once you take [the rules] away, again you're trusting companies to do the right thing,” McMurtrey said. “If you get a company that owns a big share of that market and has some monopoly power then it gets to be a concern.”

Another possibility is selling the internet in packages similar to cable television. Pai dismissed that as unlikely, since that isn’t forbidden under current rules and no ISP sells those packages.

Pai says he’s received death threats since announcing his plan to repeal net neutrality. The five-member FCC, with three republicans and two democrats, is expected to pass the repeal along party lines on December 14.

"Many critics don’t seem to understand that we are moving from heavy-handed regulation to light-touch regulation, not a completely hands-off approach,” Pai said. “We aren’t giving anybody a free pass. We are simply shifting from one-size-fits-all pre-emptive regulation to targeted enforcement based on actual market failure or anticompetitive conduct."