The very phrase “net neutrality” makes most people’s eyes glaze over, said Marguerite Reardon in But the policy dispute over traffic management on the Internet could affect everyone who uses it. Both backers and opponents of net neutrality are passionately engaged in the debate, with each side predicting disaster for businesses and consumers if they lose. When the rhetoric and technical terms are stripped away, the concept they’re arguing over is pretty simple. Net neutrality means, broadly speaking, that “Internet users should have unfettered access to content and services.” The concept has never been formally enshrined in laws or regulations, but it guides Federal Communications Commission decisions in disputes over Internet access. For example, the FCC cited net neutrality last year when it ordered Comcast not to block its subscribers from accessing BitTorrent, a service that allows users to share large files such as videos.

Now the Obama administration is trying to make net neutrality official government policy, said Peter Svensson in the Associated Press. FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants the commission to adopt explicit rules requiring Internet providers to grant their subscribers access to “all online content, applications, services, and devices, as long as they are legal.” Providers would be barred from discriminating against any particular content or applications, “either by blocking them completely or by letting other traffic jump ahead in the queue.” Internet providers fiercely oppose the proposed rules, arguing that the FCC does not have “the authority to tell them how to run their networks.”

The providers are right to oppose the FCC’s meddling, said Nick Schulz in Liberals are rabid supporters of network neutrality because they “feel about large Internet service providers, such as cable and telecom firms, the way Greenpeace feels about oil companies.” To protect consumers from these supposedly evil entities, they want to “politicize and micromanage how these firms handle the Internet traffic that moves over their lines.” But the FCC’s proposed regulations would end up harming consumers by stifling innovation. Let’s say that an entrepreneur develops a way to pump out high-definition television signals over the Internet. But to deliver those signals to your computer, the entrepreneur needs a special “fast lane” to push the data through without interference from other Internet traffic. Net neutrality would bar Internet providers from creating that fast lane. Traditional TV providers would gain an advantage, and consumers would miss out on a potentially revolutionary advance.

Sounds scary, said Craig Aaron in Broadcasting & Cable. “But like most good ghost stories, this one’s completely fictitious.” Most Internet investment these days comes from developers of applications and content, like that hypothetical entrepreneur. Net neutrality simply bars Internet providers from favoring some developers and putting others at a disadvantage. A level playing field will encourage the development of exciting new products and services, which in turn will encourage more Internet use. More Internet use translates into more revenue for Internet providers, and more investment in bigger, faster networks. The providers’ “scare tactics” won’t change that basic fact.