The debate is hot, the language heady, the metaphors many. Op-ed pages alternately bemoan 'The End of the Internet' or curse 'Net Neutrality Nonsense.' Allegations fly about the stifling of free speech, the holding back of progress and corporate hegemony. Indeed, network neutrality has become something of a cause celebre in the digital world, pitting a slew of high-profile Internet content providers and consumer-advocacy groups against major phone and cable companies, and federal lawmakers against each other.
But what exactly is net neutrality, and why does it seem to have everyone from Google and Yahoo! to Verizon and AT&T concerned? In a nutshell, the issue involves the transmission of data over broadband networks (e.g. DSL or cable internet services). As the number of sites on the Internet continues to grow and the quality of data becomes more sophisticated-encompassing video and audio files and other multimedia applications-broadband service providers (generally cable and phone companies) are seeking to regulate how material flows to users through their increasingly taxed networks. For most large providers, this has come down to one general desire: They could establish a tiered system of content delivery in which companies with data-heavy content can pay a fee to the providers in return for "special treatment" in transmission. An analogy: For those companies that pay the fee, their content would breeze through the fast-pass lane at the toll bridge, reaching users more quickly; those who don't pay will be stuck in the crowded, slow-moving line, and users will have to wait longer for their content to load.
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