Any day now the U.S. District Court Of Appeals will decide on the legality of the Open Internet Order – a set of regulations that limits telecommunications companies’ control over the flow of Internet traffic.
If these so-called “net neutrality” provisions are thrown out, it will grant Internet Service Providers the power to prioritize bandwidth to websites of their choosing, and could potentially be the end of the last true laissez-faire American frontier – the world wide web.
In 2010 the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed the Open Internet Order in hopes of protecting net neutrality – meaning Internet Service Providers (ISPs) would not be allowed to block content or give preferential Internet access to certain sites or services.
Essentially this establishes a consumer-based free market for startups, everyday web surfers, and powerhouses like YouTube, or Hulu, where all websites enjoy equal and unregulated access to their consumer bases.
Shortly after the passage of the order, Verizon sued, contending that the FCC was overstepping its authority and did not have the right to enact common carrier laws on broadband providers.
Under the current legal definition, broadband providers are not subject to the same scrutiny as telecommunication companies – a case which was decided in a Supreme Court ruling in 2005.
What’s at stake?
What does Verizon in particular stand to gain in launching this campaign against a seemingly fair set of regulations?
Activists like Marvin Ammori, an Internet policy lawyer, believe that a Verizon victory offers them a stranglehold on current information providers’ content, and control over the demise or prosperity of websites of their choosing.
Ammori writes in a recent Wired magazine piece that if the ruling goes in Verizon’s favor, the Internet will be riddled with “the equivalents of tollbooths, fast lanes, and dirt roads.”
Perhaps the most concerning potential outcome of a decision against net neutrality is that telecom companies will be able to restrict access to competitors’ content and conceivably filter out innovators like YouTube, Skype, and Netflix – a plausible temptation given the rise of Netflix over conventional television.
Arguments against net neutrality
Verizon argues that in order to deliver more important content efficiently, proper bandwidth prioritization must take place – meaning that ISPs decide what content is important and therefore how fast a user will be able to access it.
Other arguments center around bandwidth availability. In these arguments Verizon contends that sites such as YouTube, Netflix, BitTorrent, Massive Multiplayer Online Games, and other notoriously bandwidth heavy services are ‘clogging their pipes’ and therefore deserve to pay ISPs a fee so that they can expand their infrastructure.
The validity of such arguments, from a technical basis, has been challenged by net neutrality supporters, however – notably Eric Kinkler, CEO of file sharing platform BitTorrent.
In the future
A decision will likely be made in the upcoming months on the validity of Verizon’s contentions, though the Federal Court’s ruling may not be final.
Deliberations have the potential to continue on for years at even a Supreme Court level. For now, the face of web innovation and Internet access will teeters on the edge of major alterations and the tenuous provisions of net neutrality.