WASHINGTON — 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 he or she wants.
How to maintain that success, however, is the subject of a momentous fight that resumes this week in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The battle pits one of the largest providers of Internet access, Verizon, against the Federal Communications Commission, which for nearly 80 years has been riding herd on companies that provide telecommunications services.
Verizon and a host of other companies that spent billions of dollars to build their Internet pipelines say they should be able to manage them as they wish. They should be able, for example, to charge fees to content providers who are willing to pay to have their data transported to customers through an express lane. That, the companies say, would allow the pipeline owner to reap the benefits of its investment.
The FCC, however, says that Internet service providers must keep their pipelines free and open, giving the creators of any type of legal content — movies, shopping sites, medical services, even pornography — an equal ability to reach consumers. If certain players are able to buy greater access to Internet users, regulators say, 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 set to hear oral arguments starting Monday morning in Verizon v. FCC, which is billed as a heavyweight championship 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, chairman of NetCompetition, a group sponsored by broadband companies, including Verizon. “It will determine the regulatory power and authority of the FCC in the 21st century.”
Susan Crawford, a supporter of the FCC’s position who is codirector of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard and a professor at Yeshiva University’s Cardozo School of Law, said:
“The question presented by the case is does the US government have any role to play when it comes to ensuring ubiquitous, open, world-class, interconnected, reasonably priced Internet access?”