02/26/2015 05:00 EST | Updated 04/27/2015 05:59 EDT

Net neutrality winners and losers to be decided today in U.S.

The future of a fair and open internet is at stake in Washington today, with the U.S. Federal Communications Commission expected to vote to regulate internet service like a public good, the way it has been treated in Canada for years.

The expected ruling to support "net neutrality" — the concept that all online traffic must be equally accessible — would deliver a blow to senior Republicans and large U.S. cable providers such as Comcast and Verizon, which have sunk $44.2 million into lobbying efforts to allow some internet users to pay for zippier connectivity.

- The net neutrality battle for equal access vs. pay-for-premium internet 

In response, grassroots activists quickly mobilized online to oppose such preferential treatment for "fast lane" access, with more than four million people filing public grievances to the FCC.

Today's long-awaited vote should end the debate at last.

Josh Tabish, a Vancouver-based campaign manager with the nonprofit public internet advocacy group, anticipates an outcome favouring a neutral internet that will stand up in court.

Victory expected for 'little guy'

"The little guy has won," he said. "This shows that when rules are proposed that favour a small handful of powerful telecom conglomerates at the expense of everyone else, we can coalesce to fight that, and so we're expecting a win."

Abolishing net neutrality would have meant some websites hosting their own material could slow to a crawl, or Netflix could experience stuttering video playback – unless those internet companies dug into their pockets for fast-lane access.

When the big U.S. cable providers succeeded last year in having a D.C. appeals court strike down open internet rules, "the internet freaked out collectively," Tabish said.

Many users had adopted an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mindset on internet policy, he said.

A "fatal flaw" in the previous rules, according to Tabish, came down to a loophole linking back to an 81-year-old piece of legislation from the Roosevelt era.

"The rules weren't founded on Title II of the Communications Act," he explained, referring to the 1934 regulations covering common carriage rules "going all the way back to the telegraph and telephone networks."

Reclassifying as public utility

In the U.S., broadband internet is classified as an "information service," which is subject to less regulation.

But if the FCC reclassifies internet broadband as a Title II service — effectively making the internet a public utility — web access would be "bulletproof" against meddling by internet service providers, Tabish said.

That's why reclassification as a public utility is so key, he said, noting that the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission adopted that approach in 2009 and now has a "very strong" net neutrality policy.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, is now putting forward the same kind of proposal.

Republicans on Capitol Hill have also backed off from trying to pass a legislative roadblock, conceding any such bill would need broader bipartisan support.

"The carriers really thought they had this issue won," said Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law.

So how did things begin to tip in favour of net neutrality?

Geist credits "a strong public voice" online, as well as HBO host John Oliver's comedy segment explaining the issue.

Support from Obama

"The public spoke very loudly, and it's been well chronicled that many of the smaller internet companies began to speak out aggressively as well," he said.

U.S. President Barack Obama also weighed in last November.

"For almost a century, our law has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy," he said. "It is common sense that the same philosophy should guide any service that is based on the transmission of information — whether a phone call, or a packet of data."

Canada now has strong net neutrality rules governed by Internet Traffic Management Practices. The rules prevent throttling, establishment of paid priority fast lanes or slow lanes, and website blocking.

That's not to say what happens with the FCC ruling won't impact Canadians.

The innovation argument

If net neutrality advocates were to lose out, Tabish warned, this could create a "trade barrier" for companies wishing to expand into the U.S., meaning Canadian companies would have to negotiate how their content gets treated by American internet service providers.

While Canadians may not live in the U.S., many of their favourite websites do, he added.

Activists have also warned an uneven online playing field could put a chokehold on innovation.

"It's a foundational principle to allow innovation and allow users to access what they want in a manner they want, without undue or unfair interference from these larger carriers," Geist said.

Established internet companies such as Twitter, Netflix and Amazon have realized this too, added Tabish, reasoning it's in everyone's best interest to have an internet landscape that could be an incubator for the next big idea.

"The promise of the internet has always been if you have a good idea and a computer, you can change the world," Tabish said. "Net neutrality will keep things that way."