Everyone in Washington seems to be promising American web users an “open Internet” lately. On Nov. 10, after President Barack Obama called for the strictest tools available to prohibit Internet service providers (ISPs) from creating “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” for different content, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler didn’t miss a beat. “Like the President, I believe that the Internet must remain an open platform,” he wrote in a statement.
The next day, Comcast, the nation’s biggest broadband provider, seemed to concur. “Surprise!” wrote Comcast executive David Cohen in a press release. “We agree with the President’s principles on Net neutrality.” Even Republican lawmakers, who were quick to slam Obama’s statement, praised the idea of an even playing field.
But the same words don’t always mean the same thing, especially when $500-an-hour lawyers are battling over the future of a multibillion-dollar industry. The fact is that Obama, Republicans, the FCC, Silicon Valley and cable providers are all preparing for a major showdown over the rules that dictate how the Internet is delivered to your home. The stakes are high, and the rhetoric can be confusing. So let’s try to sort through the mess.
WHAT IS NET NEUTRALITY?
It is the principle that ISPs should treat all web traffic the same and not block or slow certain data streams for any reason. Many argue that enforcing Net neutrality is even more important now that big ISPs also own content companies. For example, Comcast shouldn’t be allowed to slow down the Fox News site just because it owns MSNBC. For many tech companies and activists, Net neutrality also means that ISPs should not collect fees from web companies in exchange for delivering their content faster to Internet customers. The worry is that such “paid prioritization” agreements squeeze out small businesses and tech startups that can’t afford the fast lane.
WHY IS IT UP FOR DEBATE NOW?
In May, the FCC proposed new rules that prohibited ISPs from blocking or slowing legal Internet traffic, but it did not ban paid prioritization, and it also preserved the fees ISPs collect from big content producers, like Netflix, that pay to connect directly to the back end of their networks and reach consumers more quickly. The public outcry was strong. Nearly 4 million Americans wrote to the FCC to complain about the proposed rules.
Comcast maintains that the back-end connections have nothing to do with Net neutrality. And the FCC’s Wheeler argues that the ability to add paid prioritization in the last mile of broadband wires should not be considered a fast lane, since consumers would still get the rest of Internet traffic at a normal speed. Most of Silicon Valley disagrees. And a deep-pocketed coalition of tech companies, including giants like Google and Facebook, want rules barring ISPs from collecting payment from web companies at all.
WHAT DOES OBAMA WANT TO DO ABOUT NET NEUTRALITY?
Obama campaigned in 2008 on a promise to enforce Net neutrality but mostly avoided the controversy until recently. By slamming the FCC’s proposed rules and calling for the independent agency–over which he has limited control–to write new ones that ban “paid prioritization and any other restriction that has a similar effect,” the President transformed a wonky telecom fight into a public showdown. In addition to preventing fast lanes, Obama wants to reclassify consumer broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act, which would give the FCC legal authority to regulate broadband. Comcast and all the other big ISPs strongly oppose this switch, because they worry it could lead to heavy-handed regulation. But many open-Internet lawyers believe that reclassification is the only way to give the FCC legal authority that can withstand the expected court challenges.
WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
The FCC could vote early next year to finalize its proposed open-Internet rules, which do not ban paid prioritization or deal with back-end fees paid by companies. Or the agency could propose new rules and reclassify broadband under Title II, stretching the process into 2016 or beyond. Republican lawmakers argue that any Net-neutrality rules would gum up the free market online, while open-Internet groups point out that the market is already dominated by a handful of cable and phone companies. According to Wheeler, 80% of Americans with access to high-speed broadband have only one choice of ISP. With powerful interests on both sides of the debate, the battle won’t be over anytime soon.
This appears in the November 24, 2014 issue of TIME.