It seemed an apt coincidence of timing that as legal scholars and industry representatives debated the future of the internet at yesterday’s FCC hearing at Harvard Law School, here in Washington, the House was holding somewhat more anachronistic-sounding hearings on railroad antitrust enforcement.

As Tim Wu put it at a Free Press panel on net neutrality earlier this month, at the turn of the century, the railroad was the new technology driving commerce in the United States. Likewise today, high-speed cable internet is the U.S. economy’s new highway. So by blocking or discriminating against competitors’ content–as both Verizon and Comcast have done–cable giants are not only protecting their own bottom line, they are crippling America’s innovation economy, possibly for good. (A particularly odious turnaround when you consider that cable networks were heavily financed by government tax breaks and guaranteed returns.)

Yet net neutrality isn’t just a question of whether Comcast allows us to download high-speed online TV, or the size of our monthly cable bills (which, since 1996, have gone up 93 percent). It’s also at the heart of what’s inspiring about the Internet: its democratic latitude. Yes, it’s a political question (it doesn’t take more than Verizon blocking subscribers’ ability to receive NARAL Pro-Choice text messages to see that); it’s also a question of connectivity and communication.

Our modern-day railroad barons would like to turn the Internet into their own private toll roads, the equivalent of cable television, with users reduced to passive content consumers. We can’t let them.