A U.S. Court Battle over Web Neutrality ; Verizon Is Challenging Rules That Put All Internet Content on Equal Footing

Article excerpt

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 information desired.

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 21st century."

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. …

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