A debate is raging around the world about how all that internet content streaming into billions of households should be managed.
"Net neutrality," the dry and antiseptic term bandied about in this debate, refers to the belief that internet service providers must treat all this traffic equally.
However, many of these ISPs now want new rules that would allow them to charge high-volume content providers extra to get their content to users on a broadband fast lane.
The U.S. has been struggling with the issue for years, with its latest attempt by the Federal Communications Commission expected to dash the hopes of net neutrality advocates. Meanwhile, Brazil, Chile and Europe have taken the opposite approach.
Here are some of the main elements in the debate.
What is net neutrality?
Also referred to as "open internet," it's essentially the idea that all content on the internet, regardless of its form or who provides it, should be treated equally by internet providers. Consumers are free to choose what they want to use on the internet, without ISPs restricting or shaping it in any way. Advocates for an "open internet" say the goal is to ensure freedom of expression, enable innovation and promote competition.
Why are companies fighting against net neutrality?
Internet service providers are pushing for rules that allow them to charge a premium for the use of their fastest broadband. Companies willing to pay for the special service, such as those providing broadband-heavy video or gaming services, would ensure their content gets to their customers faster and without interruption. The extra money paid to ISPs would help pay for improved broadband networks, they say.
What's the debate?
Net neutrality advocates argue that setting up a premium service basically creates a "toll road" for companies with deep pockets. Plus, any special treatment provisions might enable ISPs to decide themselves what content a consumer gets and when, perhaps limiting certain types of content to low-volume hours. Small tech firms and entrepreneurs argue it's discriminatory to create special fast lanes, and could result in fewer startups flourishing.
Large internet and content providers, however, say they need to charge more for high-bandwidth content like video streaming or voice services like Skype. They argue that under net neutrality, the companies taking up the most bandwidth with their content aren't paying their fair share to improve the internet infrastructure.
What countries have net neutrality laws?
On Wednesday, Brazil signed into law a bill of digital rights that protects the privacy of internet users and guarantees equal access. Dubbed its Internet Constitution, the law bans telecommunications companies from charging premium prices for special content.
In 2010, Chile became the first country to create a net neutrality law. The following year, the Netherlands followed suit, with Slovenia joining soon after.
In early April, the European Parliament voted to protect net neutrality. The decision came after the telecom regulator said ISPs were blocking or slowing down services like Skype and Netflix. The bill still needs final sign-off later this year.
What about the United States?
There's been a years-long battle in the U.S. on net neutrality. The FCC created rules in 2010 that banned broadband providers from prioritizing internet traffic. But a court struck down the rules in January of 2014. It said the FCC contradicted itself by treating internet service providers like a "common carrier," such as a utility like telephones, after it had already deemed them exempt from "common carrier" treatment.
Soon after, Netflix inked a deal with Comcast, the country's largest ISP, to pay extra for preferential treatment of its movie streams.
On Wednesday, the Wall Street Journal revealed that the FCC appears set to reverse its original "open internet" position. New rules by the regulator are expected to allow broadband providers to charge companies for preferential access to the internet fast lanes. However, the FCC reportedly plans to require that the arrangements are "commercially reasonable" and decide that on a case-by-case basis.
FCC chair Tom Wheeler denied the reports that the agency is on track to obliterate the core principle of net neutrality, saying the new rules won't change underlying goals of transparency and won't allow discrimination among users or blocking of lawful content. In a blog, Wheeler said the "commercially reasonable" test will protect consumers and won't harm competition.
Where does Canada stand?
The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) has taken a hands-off approach. It established traffic management rules to prevent discrimination and content blocking, but the telecom regulator won't enforce the guidelines. The onus lies on consumers to complain about an unfair practice.
Late last year, Manitoban Ben Klass filed a complaint saying Bell was giving itself an unfair advantage by charging more for Netflix content than its own competing content. The CRTC is currently reviewing that complaint and others related to fair treatment of internet services.