by Matt Mason, UMN Law Student, MJLST Staff
The net neutrality debate, potentially the greatest hot-button issue surrounding the Internet, may be coming to a (temporary) close. After years of failed attempts to pass net neutrality legislation, the D.C. Circuit will soon rule as to whether the FCC possesses the regulatory authority to impose a non-discrimination principle against large corporate ISP providers such as Verizon. Verizon, the plaintiff in the case, alleges that the FCC exceeded its regulatory authority by promulgating a non-discrimination net neutrality principle. In 2010, the FCC adopted a number of net neutrality provisions, including the non-discrimination principle, in order to prevent ISPs like Verizon from establishing “the equivalents of tollbooths, fast lanes, and dirt roads” on the Internet. Marvin Ammori, an Internet policy expert, believes that based on the court’s questions and statements at oral argument, the judges plan to rule in favor of Verizon. Such a ruling would effectively end net neutrality, and perhaps the Internet, as we know it.
The D.C. Circuit Court is not expected to rule until late this year or early next year. If the D.C. Circuit rules that the FCC does not have the regulatory power to enforce this non-discrimination principle, companies such as AT&T and Verizon will have to freedom to deliver sites and services in a faster and more reliable fashion than others for any reason at all. As Ammori puts it, web companies (especially start-ups) will now survive based on the deals they are able to make with companies like Verizon, as opposed to based on the “merits of their technology and design.”
This would be terrible news for almost everyone who uses and enjoys the Internet. The Internet would no longer be neutral, which could significantly hamper online expression and creativity. Additional costs would be imposed on companies seeking to reach users, which would likely result in increased costs for users. Companies that lack the ability to pay the higher fees would end up with lower levels of service and reliability. The Internet would be held hostage and controlled by only a handful of large companies.
How the FCC will respond to the likely court ruling rejecting its non-discrimination principle is uncertain. Additionally, wireless carries such as Sprint, have begun to consider the possibility of granting certain apps or service providers preferential treatment or access to customers. Wireless phone carriers resist the application of net neutrality rules to their networks, and appear poised to continue to do so despite the fact that network speeds are beginning to equal those on traditional broadband services.
In light of the FCC potentially not having the regulatory authority to institute net neutrality principles, and because of the number of failed attempts by Congress to pass net neutrality legislation, the question of what can be done to protect net neutrality has no easy answers. This uncertainty makes the D.C. Circuit’s decision even more critical. Perhaps the consumer, media, and web company outcry will be loud enough to create policy change following to likely elimination of the non-discrimination rule. Maybe Congress will respond by making the passage of net neutrality legislation a priority. Regardless of what happens, it appears as though we will soon see the installation of speed limits on the information superhighway.