Net neutrality is now up for political debate: Here’s what you need to know to understand what’s at stake

Just last week, President Obama released a public statement asking the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to reclassify the Internet as a public utility. This reclassification would consequently place regulations on Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Comcast or Verizon, that prevent them from requiring certain websites and companies to pay more for access to “Internet fast lanes”. Sites with access to these Internet fast lanes receive the benefit of their content becoming more visible and easily accessible than content on other, often smaller sites that cannot afford to pay the higher premiums for this service.

The President has called on the FCC to take action at this point in time in what appears to be an effort to preserve the principle of “net neutrality”.

Net neutrality is the concept that all information on the Internet should be treated equally by Internet service providers and by the government, without favoring or blocking access to any one website over another. Net neutrality, in principle, would provide Internet users with uninhibited access to the information they desire, and give smaller websites a greater opportunity to garner larger followings.

The debate over net neutrality has been going on for years within the tech community, but recently became a hot-button political issue in  in January 2014, when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit struck down regulations from the FCC requiring service providers to treat all data and bandwidth equally. The court’s decision in this case gave Internet Service Providers the go-ahead to charge certain companies more or less money depending on the amount of their bandwidth usage.

Among the companies being charged more in accordance with this decision is the online video-streaming behemoth, Netflix. While Netflix and other Internet giants could be seen as the elite consumers of this current pay-more-for-more-speed system–given that they can afford to buy their way into these “Internet fast lanes”–the fact that they and many others have come out in favor of the President’s proposal on net neutrality indicates the toll such premiums take on the services these companies provide.

While it might seem clear that net giants like Netflix and Google, who openly advocate for net neutrality, are doing so to protect their own interests against service providers that seek to charge them more for net space, the statements they’ve offered to the media cite more amiable motivations. Their public position states that reclassification of the Internet as a public utility is the best way to serve the interest of the everyday Internet user, as it would staunchly protect their freedoms of access and speech. But how much does the everyday Internet user really understand how his/her own interests are even involved in this matter, and what would change for them as a result of the government’s potential course of action?

Internet Service Providers, as well as entities like the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, claim that public utility regulation inhibits progress and innovation because it “discourages infrastructure investment and network enhancements,” incapacitating the need for competition between different service providers. Senator Ted Cruz is amongst those who have echoed these concerns about the implications of government intervention in this matter.

The Internet as an open and free platform is essential to the progress of our society as it exists today. As a space for the free exchange of ideas and information on a global yet individualized scale, the Internet is unlike anything human history has seen before. But before we can delve more deeply into the details of net neutrality, it’s crucial that we come to understand this issue at its most basic level. For starters, what is “the net”? How does it work? And what would a “neutral” approach to the Internet mean for the transmission of all the world’s information?

Here’s your answer, explained through a 12-minute story about packets of digital information traveling across wires and servers, through routers, switches, and firewalls, all at the click of your mouse. It might sound confusing, but just wait… This video will leave you feeling informed and empowered to explore all of the other aspects of the larger issue of net neutrality.