Net neutrality rules are at stake in the Verizon vs FCC dispute

Net neutrality rules at stake in Verizon vs FCC dispute

A US Court of Appeals in Washington DC on Monday expressed skepticism of Federal Communication Commission (FCC) Internet access rules, according to a report in the Washington Post this morning.

Verizon, a US telecommunications company, is challenging a net-neutrality order adopted by the FCC in 2010, which states that Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot block lawful content and mobile broadband providers cannot block lawful websites.

Verizon is arguing that the FCC has acted outside of its remit, and that the order contradicts US communications law. The company even argued the order violates its constitutional rights and that it has a free speech right to block or degrade content under the First Amendment.

Three judges questioned an FCC lawyer on the agency’s legal basis for creating its net neutrality rules. At times, two of the judges appeared to agree with Verizon’s critique that a portion of the net-neutrality rules prevent a broadband provider from striking fast-lane deals with websites, according to the Washington Post.

Verizon attorney Helgi Walker argued that the rules hinder new investment in networks. She said telecom and cable companies want to explore partnerships with websites that could bring in new revenue sources. 

“But for these rules, we could be pursuing those types of commercial arrangements,” she was quoted as saying. “My client wants freedom to explore that.”

Broadband providers are keen to escape regulation that forces them to deliver all Web content equally. The current rules stop them from creating ‘fast lanes’ for websites willing to pay more for VIP delivery of their content into homes. Such deals would enable Verizon to charge Netflix extra for faster delivery of its streaming videos, for example.

The FCC has countered Verizon’s arguments, claiming the rules are necessary to bolster innovation and that preventing blocked or degraded services protects US consumers. The FCC defended its rules on the basis of “multiple incidents of broadband providers interfering with their customers’ ability to use Internet services, from file-sharing services to Internet-based telephony”.

The FCC also claimed powerful incentives exist for ISPs “to discriminate among edge providers and to block customer access to Internet sites of their choosing”.

Analysts say the applicable law concerning the FCC’s mandate does not clearly delineate its powers over broadband services. If the judges rule against the FCC, the agency could see its powers curtailed.

The court is set to focus on answering two questions in settling the dispute, rather than philosophical arguing. Namely, did the FCC have the authority to make the net neutrality rules? Even if it did, does something else prohibit the FCC from exercising that authority here?

The outcome is critical for US consumers, who face the very real possibility that ISPs could block access to content, applications, services and devices of their choosing.

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