Net neutrality: Will you be in the slow lane or the express lane?

Speed up. Slow down. Block.

Assuming that the above five words are nothing more than a description of Super Bowl tactics would be incorrect. That’s because the words also define tactics the largest Internet service providers (ISPs)—Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable—might soon be using to bolster their bottom line. This radical change to the way in which Internet service comes into our homes, schools, and businesses follows the recent decision by a federal-appeals court to strike down the FCC’s rules governing net neutrality.

To understand what was at stake that day in court, it’s important to understand what net neutrality means. It’s “the principle that Internet service providers should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.”

Now that we’ve got the definition cleared up, let’s rewind the action a bit. That means taking a look at what happened last month in the courtroom of Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. Judge Tatel ruled against the FCC in a case brought by lawyers for Verizon. That decision effectively invalidated the FCC’s application of open-Internet, or net-neutrality, rules that historically have prevented Internet service providers from prioritizing speed and limiting access to content and user applications.

As of today, net neutrality is out. Preferential access is in. If the court’s decision is the final word, Internet users with money to spend will be treated to having their data moved to the head of the line. The rest of us will be sitting in front of our screens tapping our fingers (or worse) in frustration over slower access speeds and may even find ourselves blocked out of content one or more of the ISPs may deem objectionable.

So unless the FCC takes action, ISPs will now be free to cut exclusive deals with cable, television, online retailers, and streaming companies to prioritize Internet traffic. This could lead to a multi-tiered system of up charges and data tracks. There would be slow and fast lanes. Slow lanes would be for companies, organizations, and individuals that can’t afford to get in on the deals. Those poor cousins of the Internet might include schools, libraries, universities, nonprofits, artists posting creative content, researchers using Google and other search engines, activist organizations, small businesses, and start-ups. Fast lanes would be reserved for the largest corporations and the wealthy who could afford to ante up for the privilege.

The implications of Judge Tatel’s decision are broad. The decision threatens to destroy both the level playing field Internet users have enjoyed for more than a decade and open access to the explosion of information sharing. It threatens to increase everyone’s costs for using the Internet. As one writer at the Free Press put it, the disappearance of net neutrality will mean that “the Internet as we know it could be a relic of the past.”

As Michael Copps, former FCC commissioner from 2001 to 2011 and now a public-interest advocate at Common Cause, explains, the loss of net neutrality will mean “playing fast and loose with the most opportunity-creating technology in all of communications history.”

But don’t despair just yet. There is an opening for the FCC that allows the agency to stay in the game. Fortunately, Judge Tatel’s decision actually affirmed two vital concepts: first, the decision upheld the concept of net neutrality as a matter of principle; and, second, it upheld the FCC’s ability to reclassify ISPs as common carriers (the same classification given to companies providing telephone service), which would allow the FCC to apply its rules of net neutrality.

Here’s former FCC commissioner Copps explaining how the FCC can reverse the “flawed decision” it made ten years ago when it classified broadband service as an information service rather than a common carrier and left itself open to the devastating decision in Judge Tatel’s courtroom.

The good news is that the solution is pretty simple. It doesn’t require a new telecommunications statute replete with time-consuming years of legislative horse-trading and special interest lobbying. All it requires is an FCC big enough to own up to its previous mistakes and courageous enough to put our communications future back on track.

Current FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has not ruled out reclassification but hasn’t shown much enthusiasm for it in his public statements. His official statement following the court’s decision broadly reaffirmed the Obama administration’s commitment to “consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”

If, however, the FCC and Chairman Wheeler fail to reclassify ISPs as common carriers, Copps warns that “we are guaranteeing an Internet future of toll-booths, gatekeepers and preferential carriage.”

Even with the setback of the court’s decision, it’s certainly not time to throw in the towel. After all, Internet users are potentially the largest interest group in the country. A few weeks ago a petition sponsored by eighty-six organizations, including the ACLU, Common Cause, Reddit, Avaaz, the Free Press, The Writers Guild of America, Ms. Foundation for Women, and Daily Kos, collected more than one million signatures and was delivered to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. The petition declared:

Right now there is no one protecting Internet users from ISPs that block or discriminate against online content. Companies like AT&T, Time Warner Cable and Verizon will be able to block or slow down any website, application or service they like. And they’ll be able to create tiered pricing structures with fast lanes for content providers and speakers who can afford the tolls—and slow lanes for everyone else.

I’m here to remind you, fellow Internet users, that those one million signatures were a drop in the bucket compared to the more than 207 million of us. If every one of us would step away from the screen for a few minutes and get in the game by calling the people who were elected to represent us and demanding they and the FCC protect net neutrality and stop catering to the narrow interests of the corporate world, we could win this one.

Here’s Internet blogger Mark Fiore’s satirical take on the Internet’s future if we allow the court’s decision to stand.

Goodbye Net Neutrality, Hello Gilded Age Internet from MarkFiore on Vimeo.