Today’s the biggest day for net neutrality in months. Here’s what’s at stake.

Update: The FCC has now extended the deadline for commenting amid a crush of traffic that's threatening to melt their systems. More here.

Internet activists have been rallying their supporters all weekend for this moment.

Today's the last day you can file initial comments to the Federal Communications Commission on net neutrality, the idea that all Internet traffic should be treated equally and not slowed or blocked. We're closing one chapter of the net neutrality story, but another is about to begin. What's at stake? Where do we go from here? Read on for more.

What's all the fuss about a deadline?

After today, you won't be able to file new comments to the FCC on net neutrality — you'll only be able to reply to comments that have already been filed. Whether you're for net neutrality or against it, here's how to weigh in using the FCC's electronic comment filing system. The system is unsurprisingly experiencing a surge in activity right now, forcing the IT staff to scale up its support to prevent it all from crashing. At this point, over 677,000 comments have been filed in the proceeding, which now ranks among those with the greatest feedback. (The record-holder is Janet Jackson, whose controversial wardrobe malfunction inspired 1.4 million comments.) The FCC has promised to read every single net neutrality comment. Here are two charts, courtesy of the FCC, showing the flood of public input over the last few weeks:

(FCC)
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Who's been weighing in?

Mainly members of the public, like you. But so have a series of businesses, non-profits, lawmakers and others. In a letter Tuesday, Democratic lawmakers including Sens. Ed Markey, Chuck Schumer and Bernie Sanders urged the FCC to regulate Internet service providers like it regulates telephone companies. Sen. Ron Wyden wrote his own letter to the FCC.

Franken told reporters that if the FCC does not, it would lead to an "almost Orwellian architecture where all information is basically controlled by corporations with deep pockets."

Some high-profile members of the tech community have filed comments, too. They include Mozilla, maker of the popular Firefox browser; the Internet Association, an industry group representing Google, Amazon, Airbnb and others; reddit; Etsy; Kickstarter; and the startup accelerator, Y Combinator.

On the other side, members of the telecom industry are arguing to the FCC that new net neutrality rules are not necessary. They and others say that the Internet's done pretty well in the absence of net neutrality regulations so far — and that in fact, adding new regulations would discourage investment in new broadband infrastructure, thereby slowing down the Internet for everyone. Some warn that siding with net neutrality supporters would invite lawsuits.

What happens next?

As I said, there'll be another few months during which you can submit reply comments. But in the big picture, here's what's at stake: The net neutrality advocates want the FCC to reclassify broadband under Title II of the Communications Act, which could more easily allow the FCC to ban things like the offer to speed up certain kinds of Web traffic in exchange for a fee, a type of deal known as "paid prioritization."

Insiders say that the added pressure for Title II, particularly from Congress, gives the FCC more political cover to move that way if it wants to. But so far, the lawmakers who've weighed in are the partisans. It's not just Markey et al.; that also includes House Republicans like Bob Latta, who's proposed a bill to prevent the FCC from exercising its Title II muscles. If the net neutrality activists want to attract more substantial support, they'll have to woo those otherwise uninterested legislators.

What other questions is the FCC trying to get people to address?

Everyone's talking about Title II. But there are other questions in play in this proceeding, too. One of the key questions the FCC is asking about is whether its net neutrality rules should apply equally to wireless carriers as to broadband companies. Under the 2010 rules that were thrown out by a federal court this year, wireless companies like AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile were exempted from net neutrality. But with more Americans using mobile Internet now, there's a question as to whether it's become enough of a platform that it deserves to be treated the same as the Internet you get on your PC.

Then there's the thornier issue of interconnection, which has become the subject of dispute between the likes of Netflix and Comcast. When data from Netflix arrives at Comcast's door, Comcast is responsible for getting that traffic to consumers. Netflix has blamed ISPs for last year's drop in streaming speeds, saying they didn't open enough ports to let that traffic through. The ISPs argue that Netflix is sending way more traffic than they can handle. The standoff has gotten so controversial that the FCC has vowed to investigate. If net neutrality rules were applied to interconnection, as some net neutrality advocates would like, it would affect the kinds of traffic deals and relationships covered by interconnection. There's some ground for agreement here, even if it's mostly rhetorical.

 

Post tech reporter Hayley Tsukayama explains the idea of net neutrality, and why its future could affect every Internet user. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)
Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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