Critics of Google (such as Microsoft and Yelp) argue that the government should impose "search neutrality" to bar Google from favoring its own services — such as Google Maps, Google+, and YouTube — in search results.
Google faced a nearly two-year investigation by the Federal Trade Commission into its search practices. In early 2013, the FTC concluded that there was "some evidence" that Google manipulated its search results to highlight its own services. But the commission chose not to bring charges, saying that in many cases, Google's changes improved the "user experience" by reliably producing more useful results.
The idea of total neutrality is especially absurd for people who access the Internet on smartphones and tablets.
Apple has absolute power over what mobile apps are allowed in its store. Apps can reportedly be banned for being offensive, using too much data, being too glitchy, having small font sizes, infringing on trademarks, or numerous other reasons.
In a recent interview, Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, said the Apple App Store is more of a threat to the openness of the Internet than potential abuses by Internet providers.
"We just need to look at the Apple App Store "¦ where everything that runs on your iPhone or iPad has to be approved by Apple, with them taking a huge cut of the revenue at every step, with no real competition in sight. Consumers should be very worried about that," Wales said.
Although the Internet has never been perfectly neutral, that doesn't necessarily mean the FCC's attempts to police Internet providers are futile — or that the equality gap couldn't grow.
Companies like Comcast exercise enormous power over our access to information because they own the "last mile" of cable into our homes. Controlling the on-ramp to the entire Internet makes them a much more powerful gatekeeper than a search engine or a social network.
"The question isn't whether the Internet treats everyone equally — because it doesn't already," said Harold Feld, the senior vice president of consumer-advocacy group Public Knowledge. "The question is whether adding a new level of discrimination in the last mile is the critical difference."
The FCC first enacted net-neutrality rules in 2010, but a federal Appeals Court struck them down earlier this year. Wheeler is now trying to rewrite the rules in a way that can survive court challenges.
His proposal would still bar Internet providers from blocking websites. The providers would, however, be able to charge sites for faster service as long as the agreements are "commercially reasonable."
Wheeler has said he plans to crack down on any arrangements that are anticompetitive, bad for consumers, or infringe on free speech. Providers would not be allowed to favor traffic from an "affiliated entity" — so Comcast couldn't boost content from NBC (which it owns). Internet providers would also not be allowed to degrade their overall level of service to make the "fast lanes" more appealing.
Wheeler's proposal, set for a preliminary commission vote on Thursday, has prompted an outpouring of public anger. Critics argue that any "pay-for-priority" schemes on the Internet are an abuse of market power by broadband providers and are inherently bad for consumers.
But regardless of what happens with the FCC rules, even the worst-case scenarios won't be creating inequality on the Internet — only expanding it.