A federal court will determine whether Internet Service Providers including Verizon can operate more like premium cable TV providers by offering priority broadband access to certain websites.
Attorneys for Verizon and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) made oral arguments before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit Court on Monday, debating both Verizon's ability to prioritize certain Web traffic and the FCC's ability to impose rules on ISPs.
The FCC adopted its Open Internet Order in 2010, which requires ISPs to deliver all Web content equally in a practice known as net neutrality. Verizon sued the FCC in January 2011, arguing that the order uses outdated authority intended for regulation of landline phones.
The audio of the oral arguments for the Verizon v. FCC case can be heard on C-SPAN.
Verizon's attorney Helgi Walker said during the court arguments Monday that telecom companies including Verizon want to partner with websites to offer priority service.
"But for these rules, we could be pursuing those types of commercial arrangements," Walker said.
During the oral arguments, two of the three judges on the court panel expressed skepticism that the FCC has the authority to enforce those rules, and could rule in favor of Verizon's ability to make VIP access deals with websites, the Washington Post reports.
Those judges might allow those VIP access deals with websites but could also uphold the FCC rule that prevent the blocking of websites, Hillicon Valley reports.
The court will likely not make a ruling on the case until January or February, said Susan Crawford, who in 2009 served as the Special Assistant for Science, Technology, and Innovation Policy to President Barack Obama.
Internet access could become more expensive and stratified if broadband providers were allowed to make deals with Web companies similar to deals made in the cable TV business, said Crawford, who is currently a professor at the Cardozo School of Law.
"That is antithetical to the idea of the Internet, which allows for innovation without permission," Crawford said.
Allowing the FCC "to set some rules of the road" for ISPs could help maintain competition between Web companies and could keep a wide range of Web content options easily accessible for consumers, said Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group.
Critics of the net neutrality rules including Cisco argue that those rules stifle business opportunities for ISPs. Removing the net neutrality rules would allow new kinds of service and content offerings, and could "enhance the broadband market for consumers," according to a statement on Cisco's website.
Tech Freedom, a tech policy think tank, argues that the FCC does not have the authority to regulate Internet access.
If the court strikes down the FCC's net neutrality rules then broadband providers will still be policed by antitrust and consumer protection agencies including the Department of Justice, said Berin Szoka, president of Tech Freedom.
"This kind of flexibility will promote innovative services," Szoka said.