One morning last month, Senator Al Franken stood at the podium of a hotel in downtown Austin, looking out at some of the most innovative minds in the country gathered at this year's South by Southwest Interactive conference. "I know that many of you have heard people talk about net neutrality before," he said, "but I want to take just a moment to explain it, because part of the strategy being used to destroy net neutrality is to confuse Americans about what the term even means."

Like the INTERNET itself, net neutrality is a simple name for an increasingly complex concept. It basically means, Franken continued, "that content — a WEB page, an e-mail, a download — moves over the INTERNET freely, and it moves at the same speed no matter what it is or who owns it . . . . You can buy a song from an indie band just as quickly as you can buy a song from a band on a major label. And if you start a WEBsite for your small business, your customers can have their orders processed just as easily with you as they could if they were buying from a multi-national conglomerate."

Here, Franken said, was an independent producer's last hope of competing with corporate behemoths on an even playing field, without, in his words, "selling out." (As Franken's fellow comedian John Hodgman once put it to Jon Stewart, net neutrality is "almost too fair: it's as if the richer companies get no advantage at all.")

The cables, wires, and fiber optics that deliver the Internet are now as important as the printing presses and broadcast towers that defined the 20th century's media empires. Small advantages in the speed can dictate winners and losers in everything from news to apps. That's why media activists — including Franken, net neutrality's biggest congressional champion — call it the most important free-speech issue of our time.

There's just one problem: Congress has no fucking idea what we're talking about. The debate hasn't gotten much smarter since 2006, when Ted Stevens, of Alaska, opposed the Net Neutrality Act by infamously declaring that the Internet was "a series of tubes" — but it has intensified along predictable partisan fault lines. This week, House Republicans lobbed a resolution onto the floor that would ban the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from enacting any net neutrality rules. In response, the White House has promised to veto that resolution.

In court, net neutrality has fared even worse. In 2007, when Comcast throttled its users' access to BitTorrent's peer-to-peer connections — one of the first clear corporate violations of net neutrality — the FCC stepped in and ordered the telecom giant to cut the crap. Comcast appealed, and in April 2010 a federal court overturned that censure, ruling that the FCC had overstepped its bounds. Net neutrality was effectively nuked; the decision set off a cacophony of arguments over whether the FCC had bungled their defense — or whether, as some consumer groups grumbled, the FCC had fallen under the influence of the corporations they are assigned to regulate.

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