Happy Birthday, Internet! This September marks the 40th anniversary of our virtual god, and, as happens with the marching of time, it faces some changes. The scope and impact of those potential changes remains to be seen, but they're scary!

Perhaps you've heard the President talk about "net neutrality." That's the idea that the Internet should continue in on its merry way: people can go to the sites they like, do what they want and their web providers will allow them to do so. It's really quite utopian. Well, that practice could come to an end if evil telecommunications giants have their way.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Assn. and its ilk think that providers should reserve the right to pick-and-choose which sites get preferential treatment on their bandwidth. More than that, they're toying with the idea of increasing rates for video sites, meaning those of you who watch movies or television on your computer could pay more than people who use it simply for news and the such. According to the association, this is simply how the market works. And does it ever!

The current marketplace is working well to bring consumers the services and features they want at prices they can afford. Lawmakers should be very reluctant to replace that flexible, market-driven success story with a system of intrusive regulation.

Though the Obama administration insists it will fight for net neutrality, it may be in for quite the fight. Telecommunications companies give millions to lawmakers — Comcast employees and its PAC, which is fighting against net neutrality, spent $2.9 million in the political realm during the 2008 election and has already given about $700,000 since then — and, as we all know, lawmakers aren't immune to hefty checks. (It's worth noting that the FCC slapped Comcast's wrist last year, when the company put up barriers to block or slow down file-sharing services.)

Luckily for all of us, new FCC head Julius Genachowski vowed to back Obama and company, saying:

One thing I would say so that there is no confusion out there is that this FCC will support net neutrality and will enforce any violation of net neutrality principles.

This would please the New York Times, whose editorial team demanded this weekend that the President keep the Internet open and free.

The issue isn't simply about money — making it and spending it — but about which sites load faster or are more accessible. If, for example, one Internet provider prefers NBC News, that means CBS readers will be shit out of luck. And, if that's the case, we'll be one step closer to this "destroyed democracy" thing Glenn Beck and others keep barking about.

As much as some would like to believe it, the free market's not our democracy's defining characteristic. Nor should it be. And if there's one place to prove that, it's here, on the wild, wild Internet. Regardless of what happens, it's clear that the Internet won't be what it once was — and that makes us sad.

Image via aLii's flickr.