Like our country, which is protected by a Bill of Rights that guarantees our basic freedoms, the Internet needs concrete, fundamental protections to ensure that it is not abused by those with the power to do so," wrote Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) in an op-ed published by the Huffington Post Tuesday.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Leahy, held a field hearing at the University of Vermont in Burlington on Tuesday to discuss net neutrality.

But what does the ambiguous term "net neutrality" mean, exactly?

PC Magazine calls it "a level playing field for Internet transport" -- the absence of restrictions placed on content carried by Internet service providers.

Although the Internet has had net neutrality since it came to be, there is now a significant threat to that level playing field.

According to the American Civil Liberties Union, most consumers purchase high-speed Internet access from a small group of telecommunications giants -- Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner, Cox and Charter.

A federal court ruled in January that previous "open Internet" protections outlined by the Federal Communications Commission, to essentially keep an Internet provider from analyzing or manipulating the data we send or receive, were overkill, based on a challenge from Verizon. The FCC opened the issue to an extended public comment period which is set to come to a close on July 15.


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Notably, the same ruling said the FCC could enforce new rules, and the agency indicated it may propose "that Internet service providers be allowed to charge content providers for a faster conduit to consumers. That would effectively kill a major component of net neutrality," states the ACLU on its website.

Per the rules proposed by the FCC, Internet providers would be able to charge other companies for priority, high-speed access to their users -- what Leahy described as "paid fast lanes" on the Internet.

The Internet would no longer be free and open.

Telecom companies would be able totake a look at every piece of information we send or receive online and route that information in such a way as to slow down traffic they don't like or speed up traffic that pays a bit more.

"Imagine if the phone company could mess with your calls every time you tried to order pizza from Domino's, because Pizza Hut is paying them to route their calls first," states the ACLU site.

At Tuesday's hearing in Burlington, Sen. Leahy proposed a law that would require the FCC to ban so-called paid prioritization agreements between a broadband provider and a content provider. The bill, introduced in June with Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) will keep Internet service providers from charging websites and online services for better access to consumers.

Cabot Orton, whose grandparents started the Vermont Country Store, testified that open access to the Internet is the key to the company's success. The Manchester-based business currently supports 450 jobs in southern Vermont and has an online presence in addition to its brick-and-mortar stores.

"It's not hard to imagine small businesses forced to suffer demolition by neglect in the Internet slow lane, or to endure ruinous costs to squeeze into the Internet fast lane with the big guys," Orton said.

The outcome of the net neutrality debate will effect both small businesses and consumers, Leahy said. Keeping the Internet a level playing field is crucial for both.

"We should not allow an Internet that is divided into ‘haves' and ‘have-nots,' where those who can afford to pay drown out the voices of those who cannot," Leahy said in his Huffington Post piece.

Most of us use the Internet every day -- some of us all throughout our workday. We take for granted that it will always be a free and open medium.

But there is no guarantee.

Net neutrality will become a descriptor of the past if the government doesn't take action.

Does the future of the Internet belong to everyone, or simply to the highest bidder?

~Michelle Karas