On Monday, a case began in appeals court between Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over the issue of net neutrality and the overall authority of the Internet. The case was brought by Verizon against the FCC, in part, to dispute the commission's jurisdiction on the matter. The case is also one of the premier cases over net neutrality.
Fundamentally speaking, net neutrality represents the idea that content on the Internet should face no discrimination and be free of all hindrances. The aspect in this case is that the government, through the FCC, could prohibit Internet service providers, such as Verizon, from charging for use of its broadband.
The FCC's case is predicated on assuring that Internet content is not concentrated in the hands of too few providers. In its own words, the FCC is trying to:
"Preserve the Internet as an open platform enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, end-user control, competition, and the freedom to innovate without permission."
The question at the center of the dispute is summarized by tech policy expert Susan Crawford, who asks:
"Does the US government have any role in ensuring ubiquitous, open, world-class, interconnected, reasonably priced Internet access?"
Crawford also said in Time that net neutrality is essential for the future because:
"The US could be at a global competitive disadvantage, particularly relative to countries in Asia that are pursuing policies designed to bolster their own high-speed broadband networks. A robust, open, reasonably priced system of nationwide broadband access is crucial for the health of the American middle class and that will only be possible if the government has the power to ensure open, unfettered access to the internet."
Verizon has also contended that the FCC is interfering with the former's First Amendment right to free speech. Verizon compares what it does with its customers' data to a newspaper's editorial process. Verizon's opponents, such as Crawford, say there is a difference between directly issuing speech and acting as a conduit, or vehicle, for others' speech. She says Verizon must be either one or the other:
"It cannot be a speaker when it suits its purposes and a conduit when it does not. Either Verizon is expressing itself by its choice to transmit certain content, or it is a passive conduit for the expression of others."
The Verizon net neutrality case against the FCC has the potential to be a landmark case regarding the future of the Internet. The ruling, which might not come until 2014, could move beyond simply ensuring that a free and competitive Internet market exists. It could also alter the conception of property rights and internet data and whether the government sees fit to insert itself into an otherwise private market.
This net neutrality case also opens just as congressional Republicans continue pondering defunding the Affordable Care Act, a law centered on providing affordably-priced health insurance. So, the issue of the government attempting to forcibly level the playing field is an outcome that could also be expected.