Think about your cable plan, if you’re even still paying for cable. You start out with basic cable, then pay extra for upgrades to get more programming. If you want premium channels like HBO and Showtime, you pay more. If you want a sports package like NFL RedZone, you pay a little more for that too. Anything you’d like to watch beyond the basic tier will cost you additional money. Now just imagine if your internet service was structured in the same way. A recent court decision could make this a reality, along with a lot of other big changes to how you operate online.

Net Neutrality was a control put in place by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ensure that internet service providers (ISPs) like Verizon and Comcast weren’t able to block or diminish access to users based on which websites they visited. In other words, if you were paying for service, your ISP had to allow you equal access to any website on the internet. Verizon challenged the FCC’s ruling, and last week, this control was struck down by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D. C. So what does that mean for you and me? With net neutrality gone, here are a few things that could happen next:

Tiered Service:  As I alluded to at the beginning of this article, tiered service is one of the possibilities of an internet without net neutrality. If you want to visit sites like Netflix and Hulu, you could pay more for an entertainment package. Or a shopping tier that included access to Amazon and EBay might cost extra. Upcharges for access to certain websites may soon become the norm.

More expensive online services:  Even if ISPs don’t hit you in the wallet immediately, other online service providers might. ISPs could potentially raise the cost of doing business online for companies that use the internet. So a business like Netflix could be penalized with higher fees for using more bandwidth, or companies in general may have to pay more to ensure faster bandwidth speeds. Either way, who do you think those additional costs will get passed along to? This could be especially harmful to small businesses and startups who don’t have to capital to stay in the “fast lane” online. Those businesses can suffer greatly if slower internet speeds prevent people from accessing their websites altogether.

An even wider digital divide:  With the difference in broadband usage at home between households that make $100K+ versus households that make less than $30K hovering somewhere around 30%, the digital divide and the inequities it creates is still very real in 2014. Eliminating net neutrality potentially means an even more cost-prohibitive internet to those that have challenges getting online already. ISPs could decide to charge more to schools for using large amounts of bandwidth at once while entire classrooms are online. This could further reduce access for cash-strapped schools in urban and rural areas. It’s not enough for people in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods to just have a smartphone. Broadband access is critical to get info on job opportunities, medical information, and educational research tools, all of which are still most effectively utilized on a home computer.

Back in 2011, the United Nations declared internet access a basic human right. The end of net neutrality could mean the denial of that right to thousands of citizens across the country. The FCC does plan to appeal the ruling, so this issue is definitely not settled yet. I’d like to think ISPs wouldn’t use this as an opportunity to raise the price of service, throttle bandwidth speeds down at will, or just block websites altogether, but I’m just not that optimistic. You can find out more about the fight to save the free internet here.

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