as afraid as I am to post this opinion on slashdot of all places, ... already has such strongly held opinions that they get angry at you for even asking in the first place.
Naw, no worries mate. You should never be afraid to ask. Don't let the maniacal group of fanatical, hammer-wielding zealots put you off.
As I understand it, net neutrality is a set of U.S. government regulations that prohibit an ISP like Comcast from charging, say Netflix, more per GB than they charge me per GB.
Network neutrality is how the Internet works. Network neutrality regulation is the governments attempt at keeping it from falling apart. There's been a pretty obvious political campaign to get the two conflated. The thing with extorting extra money out of specific services is one aspect of it.
Network Neutrality: It prevents ISPs from fucking with your packets in transit. It's fundamentally how the Internet works and has always worked since it's inception. The Internet is a bunch of networks interconnected all sharing and carrying each other's packets through a vast web. It's pretty cool. Small ISPs pay those above them for connections, and charge those under them, and "peer" with their neighbors on all their borders. So if JoeISP next door has a million packets last month that needed to cross your lines to get to something on the other side, and you had a million packets that needed to go through his servers, you're both square.
And neither of you fuck with those packets in transit. You don't slow down all of Joe's customers packets. You don't look through them and drop all the stuff related to cats. You don't differentiate if they're going to France or to Kansas. You don't care if they're smut or if they're stock orders. You don't care if it's netflix traffic or hulu traffic. It's all equal and you carry it as neutral as possible. (and, there's some exceptions like VoIP being treated differently than downloads, it's not a perfect system).
Now, if Joe was a real dick, he could go to Netflix and demand an extra $50 or he'd drop all their packets. Or make Google queries 10s slower than Bing searches. Or block anything going to or from China. Or block all porn. Or refuse web connections to a subset of the Internet unless the customer pays extra. All of that breaks network neutrality, and is a way for ISPs to make an extra buck on top of actually providing Internet service.
Netflix officially don't care anymore as they're too big to bully around. Could you imagine buying Comcast and simply not having that include Netflix? PFt, no. Customers would flock to alternatives. Netflix can play that game of chicken and double-dog-dare Comcast to shit all over their customers and give degraded service. Hell, they're international, they can weather the storm. 10 years ago when they started competing with cableTV, they really REALLY cared.
The FCC was trying to enforce network neutrality by classifying the Telecom giants as common carriers like Fedex. Which means they can't fuck with the goods in transit (and that they're not responsible for what people send). If business REALLY wanted to bitch-slap the telecoms for changing that, Disney could sue them all for all the piracy their services are aiding. But that's a legal nuclear option. Prior to the FCC pulling that trigger with classifying ISPs as common carriers is that the market consolidated and competition died off. Before, asshats like JoeISP didn't try to break network neutrality as the network would simply route around it, and everyone depended on everyone else playing nice. Now that there's only a handful of major ISPs that refuse to compete with each others territory, there's no free market, and capitalism is fucked.
but we're still talking about the government prohibiting a specific type of contractual agreement between two corporate entities - that almost never goes well for anybody except the incumbents.
Hmmm, it might seem that way to a cynic. But plenty of things are prohibited and everyone agrees they ought to be. Like one corporation paying another to beat up and shoot the rabble-rousing union strikers ala the Pinkertons. Or blatant collusion like Union Pacific refusing to transport the oil you found on your land unless you sell it to Standard Oil for a pittance. Or banks using your money to invest in risky deals without telling anyone. These are all illegal. Now. They were previously acceptable contractual agreements between two corporations. To claim that any sort of business regulation is a bit... philosophical. Do you really want bankers and stock traders to play fast and loose with your investments like they did leading up to 2007? But yeah, there's plenty of way to fuck up the regulation and enforcement of network neutrality. I liked the FCC's common-carrier classification as it didn't introduce any sweeping new rules, it just applied old established rules to telecoms. The downside, as we're seeing, is that the head of the FCC changes every election cycle. If the FCC can't ensure the Internet stays healthy, then we'll have to have legislature do it. Or the FTC could bust up the telecoms with Sherman's hammer. That's also viable.
Or, look at it this way: The "incumbent", the current person in charge of deciding where and how your packet get places, is you. The masses. The users. We want that to remain in place and for the Internet to stay like it's always been.