When it comes to the Internet, there's a buzzword that's been circulating in media outlets everywhere: Net neutrality.
The issue is a complex one, pertaining to the blocking, slowing or speeding up of Web traffic. In January, a federal court struck down a Federal Communications Commission provision prohibiting Internet service providers, such as Verizon and Comcast, from doing just that.
And last week, a media firestorm hit about FCC draft rules. They were circulated to the commission April 24 but have yet to be publicly released. According to reports, the rules allow Internet service providers to charge a fee for certain websites to get their products - such as Netflix videos - to consumers quickly.
Let's back up. In layman's terms, what exactly is Net neutrality?
Essentially, it's the philosophy that a person or entity (such as Verizon or Comcast) doesn't have the right to block or slow data flow for personal gain, according to Don McCombie, of NoWorriesIT.
Net neutrality means providers can't charge a fee to speed up websites. And vice versa - they can't slow down sites either.
McCombie thinks of it like this: A property owner has a quick-moving creek in his backyard. He leaves only a trickle to flow downstream unless the other property owners pay a fee for the water.
Charging a content provider a fee to get its website to a consumer doesn't seem fair. Why would providers want to do such a thing?
Content eats up bandwidth differently, according to Dr. Robert Trader, a McDaniel College associate professor of communications.
Take streaming video: That uses a lot of bandwidth.
In turn, this bogs down the network, said Bruce Hall, owner of Sykesville-based Freedom Wireless Broadband.
"It's a heavy load their network is not really up to," he said, "so [providers] started slowing it down to manage the traffic. It's like putting extra red lights in an intersection because you have so many cars."
The FCC had been prohibiting this. But its proposed rules would likely allow providers to do just that. And they could charge content providers, like Netflix, a fee to take out those extra red lights so their websites stream faster.
"What Net neutrality really does is it gives the Internet service provider the right to decide a different pay hierarchy for different types of data," Trader said.
What does all this mean?
The short of it: No one really knows yet.
But, don't worry; experts have come up with likely scenarios.
First, Internet service providers could begin charging content providers, such as Netflix, money to effectively deliver their videos to the user. And that means the cost could be passed down to the consumer, according to McCombie.
"It certainly puts a lot of control in the hands of the providers," he wrote in an email. "In a county like ours, there is relatively little choice of providers to begin with, so the consumer would be a bit at the mercy of the Internet service provider who could charge whatever fee they wanted to."
For some smaller providers, this might not be so bad. Quantum Internet and Telephone services Carroll and the greater Baltimore region. Its CEO, Kevin Brown, said the FCC's proposal may end up benefiting his company.
Comcast and Verizon might decide to charge a fee for certain content providers. If they decide not to pay up, the speed of websites could slow, meaning frustrated consumers may look to a smaller provider, Brown said.
"We don't have much market power, so to influence somebody like Netflix, even if we wanted to charge a troll poll like Comcast is doing, we probably wouldn't be able to make that happen," Brown said. "We wouldn't want to do it, and I don't think we'd be able to do it."
I run a website. Should I be worried that I'll have to pay money to major Internet service providers so my site loads quickly?
Experts say you'll probably be fine. Sites that don't generate thousands upon thousands of users a day, gobbling up large amounts of bandwidth, will likely be safe.
"The smaller websites don't generate that much traffic," Trader said, "so it's not really going to be something of concern for a company like Comcast. They'd go toward Netflix being so huge and, of course, YouTube."
So, who's lining up for and against this thing?
The obvious pro-Net neutrality advocates are content providers, like Netflix, because they'll be burdened financially. And Internet service providers are lining up on the opposing side, Trader said.
The FCC used to have a Net neutrality policy. Its new draft rules - sparked by the January federal court decision - change this.
In a news release titled "Setting the Record Straight on the FCC's Open Internet Rules," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote last week that Internet service providers may not act in a "commercially unreasonable manner to harm the Internet, including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity."
Also: Legal content may not be blocked, and providers must disclose their network policies to subscribers.
"It comes down to the FCC trying to do the right thing," Hall said, "and the guys with the big money, Comcast and Verizon, basically saying, 'No, no, you're not going to tell us what to do. We've got the bucks.' They got the court to see it differently than the FCC sees it, and the court may be right - that may be the right way to do it."
Crafting Internet guidelines is a messy, messy thing, Trader said.
"The big problem with the Internet has always been: How do you regulate something that's so big and unwieldy?" he said.
Trader gets the business side of it all: Charging more money to those who use more bandwidth. But there's another aspect of the Internet that's important to note, he said.
"Ultimately, if you believe in a democratic society, where information should flow freely, then I think Net neutrality is something that people should support," he said. "We should all have equal access to any type of information."