The head of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai, set the stage Wednesday for a series of battles that could affect whether consumers have unfettered access to internet content in the future, and what they pay for online services such as Netflix. Pai said that he would begin rolling back regulations mandating network neutrality that have been in place since 2015.

Network neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic should be transmitted to consumers the same way, regardless of whether an internet service provider has a financial stake in one content provider or another. (More on that below.)

Pai said that the regulations threatened innovation and investment in the broadband industry, and could slow the spread of high-speed connections to underserved communities. He called the internet “the greatest free-market success story in history,” and said the rules were prompted by “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom.” 

Pai made his announcement at an event hosted by FreedomWorks, a conservative advocacy organization.

In contrast, consumer advocates argue that the regulations are needed to protect innovation and ordinary people’s access to the web.

“Doing away with net neutrality rules could ultimately mean doing away with the internet as we know it,” said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. “Rather than leveling the playing field to spur competition and innovation, Chairman Pai’s proposal would allow a select few corporations to choose winners and losers.”

This is a debate clogged with jargon, technical details, and arguments between huge corporations, but the outcome could affect every consumer who accesses the internet—in other words, virtually every consumer in the United States.

Here, quickly, is what you need to know to follow the debate.

What Is Net Neutrality, Again?

One way to look at this issue is to imagine web content moving through dumb pipes that have no idea what content they are carrying. That's net neutrality. The pipes have no opinion one way or another about the value of the content—they are neutral on the subject.

In a world with network neutrality, any small startup company—or private citizen—can begin transmitting video content or games or any other sort of material with confidence that every consumer can get speedy access to it, regardless of what the ISP providing their internet access thinks about it.

In a world without net neutrality, an internet service provider such as Comcast or Verizon might refuse to let its customers access certain websites, or might slow down content coming from those websites. In essence, there might be fast lanes and slow lanes for web content.

Why would an ISP do that? To promote content that the ISP was selling itself, or to make money by charging content providers for the right to reach consumers.

That's a troubling scenario, but as Pai pointed out in his remarks, ISPs operated for years on the principle of net neutrality before the rules were put in place with the Open Internet Order in 2015. And he argued that, regardless of the details of the rules, the FCC's oversight of ISPs was enough to inhibit companies from making investments that would benefit consumers. “It’s basic economics: The more heavily you regulate something, the less of it you’re likely to get,” he said.

That point is in dispute.

Organizations representing hundreds of web-based companies are vigorously supporting the rule. One of the trade groups, the Internet Association, has a roster of members that includes Netflix, Facebook, eBay, and other giants of the tech industry.

“The current FCC net neutrality rules are working and these consumer protections should not be changed,” the organization said in an announcement on Wednesday. “Consumers pay for access to the entire internet free from blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization. The existing 2015 Open Internet Order protects consumers from ISPs looking to play gatekeeper or prioritize their own content at the expense of competition online. Rolling back these rules … will result in a worse internet for consumers and less innovation online.” 

How Did We Get Here?

The first version of net neutrality rules—created in 2010—were knocked down by a Verizon lawsuit in January 2014. The issue wasn't net neutrality itself, but whether the FCC had the authority to impose the rules on broadband companies: The courts said the agency was overstepping its bounds.

The FCC got around that problem in 2015, after nearly a year of fielding public comments, by reclassifying broadband providers as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act. Basically, that put ISPs in the same category as phone companies, and gave the FCC much stronger authority to regulate them. 

Until that time, a different government agency, the Federal Trade Commission, oversaw the ISPs, and that's still the body with authority to investigate potential abuses by web-based businesses such as Amazon and Google, along with other U.S. companies.

What Pai is proposing now is to reverse the Title II reclassification, dumping ISPs back into the ocean of other companies subject to oversight by the FTC, and canceling the net neutrality rules at the same time.

What Happens Next?

The fight over net neutrality is going to be a lengthy one, with plenty of smaller scuffles along the way. And the first moves are coming right away.

"First," Pai said, "we are proposing to return the classification of broadband service from a Title II telecommunications service to a Title I information service—that is, light-touch regulation drawn from the Clinton Administration. As I mentioned earlier, this Title I classification was expressly upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, and it’s more consistent with the facts and the law."

Pai then said he'd release the full text of the proposal to the public Thursday afternoon. 

Tech companies and consumer groups are already gearing up for a battle, and Consumers Union has set up a site where consumers can weigh in. “Consumer activism was key to getting these rules passed and will be just as important, if not more, in protecting them now," Schwantes says.

The next move by the FCC comes on May 18, when the commissioners are scheduled to vote on whether to accept Pai's proposal, which officially will be called a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking. If it's adopted, the public will be invited to comment.

"And later this year, I am confident that we will finish the job," Pai said. "Make no mistake about it: this is a fight that we intend to wage and it is a fight that we are going to win."