A lawsuit between Verizon and the Federal Communications
Commission will decide whether U.S. Internet providers can favor
some information over other in delivering online data.
Few people would dispute that one of the biggest contributors to
the extraordinary success of the Internet has been the ability of
just about anyone to use it to offer any product, service or type of
How to maintain that success is the subject of one big fight
beginning this week in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia. The battle pits one of the largest providers of Internet
access -- Verizon -- against the Federal Communications Commission.
Verizon and a host of other companies that have spent billions of
dollars to build their Internet pipelines believe they should be
able to manage them as they please. Content providers willing to pay
for the privilege, for example, could be given priority in
transporting their data, creating a sort of express lane that favors
some information over others, and allows the pipeline owner to reap
the benefits of its investment.
The F.C.C., however, believes that Internet service providers
must keep their pipelines free and open, giving the creators of any
type of content -- movies, shopping, medical services or pornography
-- an equal ability to reach consumers. If certain players are able
to buy greater access to Internet users, the playing field will tilt
in the direction of the richest companies, possibly preventing the
next Google or Facebook from getting off the ground.
The court is to hear oral arguments starting Monday morning in
Verizon v. Federal Communications Commission, which is billed as a
heavyweight championship fight of the technology world, setting the
old era against the new.
"This will determine whether the laws and regulations of the past
-- the pre-Internet age -- will apply to the Internet's future,"
said Scott Cleland, the chairman of NetCompetition, a group
sponsored by broadband companies, including Verizon. "It will
determine the regulatory power and authority of the F.C.C. in the
Susan Crawford, a supporter of the F.C.C.'s position who is co-
director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard
and a professor at Yeshiva University's Benjamin N. Cardozo School
of Law in New York, called the showdown "a moment of grandeur."
"The question presented by the case is, Does the U.S. government
have any role to play when it comes to insuring ubiquitous, open,
world-class, interconnected, reasonably priced Internet access?" Ms.
Crawford said. "Does the government have good reason to ensure that
facility in America?"
European countries are similarly struggling with whether and how
to regulate Internet service. The Netherlands has some wireless
regulations in place, and France just introduced strict anti-
discrimination measures. But while E.U. officials have voiced
support for so-called Net neutrality, a recent proposal gave
Internet providers more leeway to manage services than many
neutrality supports liked.
In December 2010 the F.C.C. issued its "Open Internet Order," an
87-page set of instructions directing Internet service providers not
to block or to unreasonably discriminate against any type of
Internet traffic deemed not harmful to the system. The only
exception to the open access principle is for "reasonable network
management," a loosely defined term. Internet service providers also
were ordered to disclose how they manage their networks and how
their systems perform -- like how they handle congestion when a
large portion of users are, for example, downloading high-
definition video. …