The free Internet is at risk.

Comcast can now charge Netflix a fee in order to have good bandwidth for their videos. Verizon can make Instagram pay to make sure your videos upload quickly. AT&T can make HBO GO play new episodes of Game of Thrones slower if HBO won't pay up.

How did this happen?

The Federal Communications Commission used to have a rule against this sort of thing called "net neutrality." Unfortunately, the way the FCC wrote the rule was legally unsound, so earlier this month a federal court decided it was no longer enforceable.

Uh-oh. As lawyer Marvin Amorri reported to Wired magazine, "AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast will be able to deliver some sites and services more quickly and reliably than others for any reason. Whim. Envy. Ignorance. Competition. Vengeance. Whatever. Or, no reason at all."

Personally, I think this is a bad thing, but the issue is trickier than it seems. How do we deal with their conflict?

First, the Internet service providers. Comcast, Verizon and other ISPs have run the wires, built the poles and created the infrastructure that Netflix and Google use to make billions of dollars a year. They feel like they should have a piece of the pie.

On the other hand, websites are in danger of being extorted. Now that net neutrality is no longer a requirement, Comcast can essentially auction off the highest speeds. Whether Bing or Google is faster at parsing the Internet will have more to do with how much they're paying off providers than the innovation of their engineers. Whether you can watch Netflix or browse Wikipedia could have to do with which cables happen to run by your house.

There are plenty of points to be made in this dispute. First, the only reason ISPs make money is because people want the Internet. Wikipedia, Facebook and YouTube are the reason these companies can charge hundreds to thousands of dollars per year for Internet, even when costs to providers are historically low. So saying the ISPs aren't 'getting theirs' is totally false.

Still, the capitalists among us might ask why these companies aren't allowed to charge customers however much they want for their product. This is a legitimate question, but it both overlooks the monopolistic power cable companies currently have and the structural role the Internet plays in our current lives.

Cable companies have almost no competition. Over-the-air TV has been largely killed off (by cable companies), and almost all markets are dominated by colluding monopolies or duopolies. At my address near the Old City, only two providers are available (Comcast and UVerse), and they are both exactly the same cost after the first 6 months.

The free market is obviously failing in the Internet war, too. The U.S.'s median Internet speed is only 60 percent of the average for the Organisation of Economic Co-operation and Development. Japan's Internet is more than five times as fast. Some countries deliver speeds 50 times what Comcast provides at $35 a month.

We're not even dealing with less bureaucracy with these profiteering companies. In 2011's Business Insider list of the Most Hated Companies in America, Comcast, Charter, Cox, AT&T and Time Warner Cable all made the top 20. If competition were going on, all the top companies in an industry wouldn't be hated.

Beyond the current failure of ISPs, the Internet is just too important to be held hostage by companies with the power to charge whatever they want or else. The Harvard Business School estimates the Internet provides well over a trillion dollars in productivity to the U.S. economy every year.

Without regulations dictating net neutrality, these companies can essentially look at businesses that require the Internet (all of them) and say, "That's a nice business you've got there. It'd be a shame if something were to happen to it." Especially when you consider that services like Netflix and Hulu are direct competitors to Comcast and Time Warner's TV revenue, we're creating a very scary monster.

We're legalizing Internet cartels.

Online businesses are a clear example of companies being left to their own devices and fouling up an industry that is irreplaceable in the scheme of the overall U.S. economy (see—the financial crisis of 2007-08). Companies that happen to hold the keys to the main drivers of our lives shouldn't be given a free pass to hold them hostage.

It is obvious the Internet is a part of our economy's infrastructure—like our roads, electricity and phone lines—and should be treated as such. Unfortunately, we've taken a huge step backward by telling cable companies they have the right to treat the Internet as their own product.

Evan Ford is a junior in philosophy. He can be reached at eford6@utk.edu.