One of the key principles determining how the Internet operates is in danger. And it may disappear altogether if big corporations and the Federal Communications Commission have their way. The result could turn the information superhighway into a toll road, where high-paying customers have exclusive use of the fast lane, and the devil take the poor and the hindmost.

The principle of Net neutrality is that all network traffic should be treated the same. All content, including spam, webpages, streaming videos, email, and illegal downloads are  given the fastest routes available. There must be no discrimination due to source, content, or destination. It is the one of the basic foundational ideals of the Internet, and big corporations are seeking to destroy it.

It used to be that the FCC was one of Net neutrality’s most zealous defenders. But an appeals court threw out its old rules because they treated the Internet service providers as public utilities. This, the court  said, conflicted with an FCC ruling that the Internet should not be governed by the same rules that apply to power or phones.

It would seem that the FCC could write new rules to preserve Net neutrality. But something happened in the meantime – Comcast and Netflix made a deal. For months, the giant service provider had throttled Netflix downloads by as much as 30%.

But a secret deal to allow Netflix’ streaming videos to pass was made. The upshot is that with so many customers lost recently, new Netflix customers will have to pay more.  Just how much, or when, hasn’t been said yet, but probably $1-2 month as soon as the hubbub dies down. However, consumers should expect many more similar deals and corresponding price hikes to come.

Did this prompt the FCC to change its position? The timing sure seems suspicious. And there’s the infamous Washington revolving door to consider. After the latest example of a head commissioner quitting for an industry position, Timothy Karr of the Free Press said that since 1980, 80% of the FCC’s regulators later take jobs with the industries they regulate. Draw your own conclusions.

“The FCC had an opportunity to reverse its failures and pursue real net neutrality,” according to Craig Aaron, CEO of Free Press, “instead, in a moment of political cowardice and extreme shortsightedness, it has chosen this convoluted path that won’t protect Internet users.”

Calling it the “open Internet” these new rules would forbid ISPs from blocking websites outright, and the fast lane would apply mainly to the last stretch of connections to homes or business. What the FCC proposes are new standards in which deals for priority treatment could be challenged, and the FCC would rule whether the deal was made in good faith and benefits consumers. This could and will likely result, of course, in a whole raft of new court cases.

Critics also point out that this fast lane would benefit the already-established giant providers like Netflix, Google, Apple, and Disney, who can afford it, and would have a depressing effect on smaller content providers, local ISPs, and new start-ups.

Comments to the FCC can be made here. But hurry – the Commission announced it will rule on May 15. So enjoy free access while you can, because it might not last.