The Internet is abuzz today with the report that Google and Verizon are approaching an agreement that would allow Verizon control over the speed of online content – allowing content owners to pay for the privilege of getting their information faster to the masses.

In case you haven’t been following the debate, we’ll break it down for you in simple terms. While Gizmodo, as always, does an excellent job of updating the story and explaining it, here’s a the story behind the issue and why you should be interested in the outcome as consumers.

Back in 2006, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was a staunch supporter of net neutrality, comparing the current status of the Internet to a highway.

Today the Internet is an information highway where anybody – no matter how large or small, how traditional or unconventional – has equal access. But the phone and cable monopolies, who control almost all Internet access, want the power to choose who gets access to high-speed lanes and whose content gets seen first and fastest. They want to build a two-tiered system and block the on-ramps for those who can’t pay.

Net neutrality is  when no form of content is favored over the other – equal access, like Schmidt said. The big ISPs have been against it, with Verizon the most outspoken.

Google was for net neutrality back in 2006. A public policy blog was posted in January, re-confirming their committment to equal access. But the tides turned in April, when a federal appeals court ruled in Comcast’s favor that the FCC can not tell Comcast, or any ISP, to be net neutral. Comcast had sued the FCC in 2008 after they were found to be blocking BitTorrent and the FCC  (as Gizmodo brilliantly put it) told them to “GTFO.”

Since then, meetings upon meetings have been had between various ISPs the FCC and now Google. And finally, this morning, a NY Times story broke, saying Google and Verizon are nearing an agreement that could allow Verizon to speed up online content to Internet users if the content’s creators are willing to fork out the cash.

Google and Verizon quickly denied the NY Times story. But as Gizmodo contacted outlets for quotes, a different story emerged – one that Google and Verizon are not as quick to deny.

Bloomberg reported Google and Verizon had reached a compromise. Internet traffic wouldn’t be allowed to be restricted, but mobile internet traffic was fair game. Certain traffic could be prioritized by phone and cable companies for companies that pay extra.

All Google had to say about that? “We have no announcement at this point.”

So what does this mean for consumers? It’s not entirely clear.

But most could argue that restrictions such as these can’t be good for smaller companies and start-ups, who don’t have the funding to compete with giant corporations. YouTube versus Vimeo. Twitter versus Posterous. Google versus Bing. We’ve already seen unlimited data plans being eliminated at AT&T.

What’s so wonderful about the Internet now is that everyone has a voice. Anti-corporation websites are allowed to flourish. It could come to pass that the creation of a premium price for content would shut the little guys out. Political organizations could pay for faster content, limiting the opposition. The ramifications of this could be severe.

Some fear that creating a premium price for content will force increases on consumers, much like premium cable channels like HBO or Showtime. And that’s entirely possible. And what about international traffic? If the US begins a process like this, we’ll see global changes. Changes that don’t benefit anyone other than large corporations.

Back in 2006, Schmidt had a great point – one that still stands.

Creativity, innovation and a free and open marketplace are all at stake in this fight. Please call your representative (202-224-3121) and let your voice be heard. [NYT and Gizmodo]