You've probably heard the term or read it online and simply skipped past it without a second thought. Maybe it seemed abstract, arcane or a bit geeky, not something you as an Internet user needed to worry about.
Thursday, in a bold move, the FCC proposed regulations to ensure that broadband providers -- the companies providing high-speed Internet connections to our homes -- deliver Internet traffic to subscribers in a nondiscriminatory manner.
So why should you care? If you use the Web or instant messaging -- or Google or Facebook or Twitter or use VoIP to make a call, to take just several popular examples -- you are enjoying the fruits of the Internet's history as an open and "neutral" network. Individuals or small start-ups launched each of these applications and services on a level playing field.
Each succeeded because Internet users found their services valuable. Many other innovative ideas had an equal chance to succeed on the Internet, but failed to attract users. That's how the Internet works, and it's important to keep it that way -- open and available for new applications to rise or fall on their own merits, without interference.
That's what makes the Internet different from other media. Broadband companies provide consumers with "on ramps" to the Internet. But unlike other media, they do not try to control what gets carried across their networks. They are, for the most part, agnostic as to which online applications or service their subscribers' access.
No online service gets preferential treatment, and an online service that competes with the broadband provider's own offerings is delivered without discrimination.
As a result, innovators are free to develop new technologies and services -- taking advantage of the Internet's open set of common technical standards -- and share them with the entire world. There is no need to negotiate or seek permission from anyone on the network.
In short, there are no gatekeepers on the Internet. Google started in a garage and Facebook in a dorm room, and they did not need to seek permission from anyone to launch online.
This novel arrangement of "innovation without permission" is exactly what makes the Internet a hotbed of technological advancement and creativity. Whether people realize it or not, everyone who uses the Internet today benefits greatly from the Internet's open platform and lack of centralized control.
But as the Internet has moved from dial-up to broadband, concerns are growing that the future of the open and neutral platform may not be a sure thing. In the dial-up world, the Internet ran across plain old telephone wires and benefitted from longstanding "common carriage" rules that required the phone companies to carry all traffic without discrimination.
Broadband carriers do not need to play by those rules, and concern is growing that pressures to manage increasingly complicated broadband networks and maximize revenues will lead carriers to seek increasing levels of centralized control.