Rules of the Road for the Internet

The Internet has always thrived on the idea that its highways and byways are wide open roads with little outside interference. So, you can understand the howls emanating from open Internet proponents, who feel besieged by a series of recent events that may have turned their cause on its head. 2014 has not been kind to them.

On Jan. 15, a federal appeals court threw out the Federal Communications Commission's open Internet rules -- also called net neutrality -- removing any legal barriers that would stop Internet service providers from interfering with or discriminating against any data sent through their pipes. The FCC lacked the proper oversight authority to enforce the rules, the court said.

A month later, Comcast agreed to buy Time Warner Cable for $45.2 billion, a deal that would merge the nation's No. 1 and No. 2 cable TV providers and create the largest Internet service provider in the U.S.

The tempest of reaction from merger opponents had hardly subsided when Comcast announced another stunning deal, this one with Netflix, just 10 days later. Buffeted by customer complaints about slow streaming, the most popular video service chose to speed up transmission by paying Comcast an undisclosed sum to have the cable powerhouse retrieve content directly from Netflix's servers rather than going through third-party distributors as it had before.

The emerging landscape these events suggest -- a weakening regulatory environment at a time when media companies are consolidating to assert greater control over content providers -- frightens those who prefer that the Internet pipes remain free and open for all.

Here are some questions to consider as the fate of the open Internet plays out:

Q: What is the open Internet?

The open Internet, or net neutrality, is a principle that says all legal content on the Internet is equal. The idea is that innovators...

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