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Is this the day the 'free internet' dies? Or is it all just another Y2K?

As the FCC vote on net neutrality beckons, tech titans are making one last stand to save the free internet.
Image: Protesters gather on Bolyston Street in front of a Verizon store during a Net neutrality rally on Dec. 7, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.
Protesters gather on Boylston Street in front of a Verizon store during a net neutrality rally on Dec. 7, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.Ryan McBride / AFP - Getty Images

This could be the day that net neutrality dies — but supporters of a free internet aren't going down without a fight.

The vote by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the internet is set for Thursday — with members expected to vote 3-2 along party lines — but there are still two possible avenues for challenging the FCC's planned rollback of net neutrality: through courts or through Congress. With a Republican majority, the latter is unlikely, but it hasn't stopped net neutrality supporters from trying.

Protesters gather on Bolyston Street in front of a Verizon store during a Net neutrality rally on Dec. 7, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.Ryan McBride / AFP - Getty Images

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; Vint Cerf, known as the "father of the internet"; Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web; and 19 other technology pioneers all called the FCC's plan "rushed and technically incorrect," in a letter to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet.

The upcoming vote "is an imminent threat to the internet we worked so hard to create," the group wrote. "It should be stopped."

Related: The backlash is building over the plan to gut net neutrality

Following hundreds of protests around the United States last week, Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney, D-N.Y., introduced the Save Net Neutrality Act, which would stop the FCC from voting during the current rule-making process.

In a video posted on Twitter, Maloney noted how the public comment period, which closed at the end of August, had been "corrupted by all kinds of fake comments and shenanigans."

Social media has been buzzing with people expressing their concern ahead of the vote. When the #NetNeutrality hashtag is used on Twitter, it even comes with a small buffering icon to show what a future internet with fast and slow lanes may look like.

But others have noted that there may be nothing for consumers to worry about — even comparing the online hype to Y2K.

"The rhetoric is far out-pacing reality," Daniel Lyons, an associate professor of law at Boston College and a tech policy expert who calls himself a "net neutrality skeptic," told NBC News.

So what exactly would change if net neutrality disappears?

At its core, net neutrality ensures that all traffic is treated equally on the internet. Since 2015, the internet has been regulated as a utility, instead of an information service. This gives the FCC the authority to ensure that providers don't create fast and slow lanes for internet traffic.

Many of the big internet service providers, including Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, the parent company of NBC News, believe rolling back net neutrality rules will allow them to innovate and offer customers new options at more competitive prices.

Everyone from open internet advocates to tech companies, including Google, Facebook and Apple, have warned that this could set a dangerous precedent, allowing these internet service providers to become gatekeepers of information and entertainment.

If the vote scheduled on Thursday goes according to plan, the FCC commissioners will vote 3-2, along party lines, to roll back the net neutrality rules, reclassifying the internet as an information service.

Next, the FCC will publish the rule in the Federal Register, the journal detailing government agency rules, proposed rules and public notices.

"Then it usually takes effect after 60 days," Lyons said. "Realistically, I don’t think consumers are going to see much of a difference."

The new "light touch" approach would give internet service providers free rein to control your online experience, potentially prioritizing traffic to their own sites, controlling the speed a certain page loads — a practice known as "throttling" — and even blocking access to certain sites.

The one caveat: They'll have to disclose these practices, either through an easily accessible public website or by informing the FCC.

Another change: The vote would return power to the Federal Trade Commission to advocate for consumers against any anticompetitive practices.

"I think the one real concern is anticompetitive behavior that favors affiliate," Lyons said. For example, he said, if "Comcast wants you to watch their streams and decides to slow down Netflix."

While it would theoretically be able to do so under the new rules, Comcast said in a blog post last month that its "commitment to customers remains the same: We do not and will not block, throttle or discriminate against lawful content — and we will be transparent with our customers about these policies."

Returning to a light-touch framework would allow internet service providers to experiment with new business models that spur innovation and benefit consumers, Lyons said. "I have faith antitrust laws will protect us against bad experiments," he added.