Broadband provider Verizon and US watchdog the FCC will face off in court today in a crunch battle for net neutrality – a longstanding principle that guarantees a fair and level playing field for all on the web.
Verizon and fellow ISPs want to charge websites and other online businesses a premium for piping their data faster to customers, effectively creating a two-speed internet: firms that can't afford the fast lane, can't successfully pass the fees onto the users, or refuse to play ball, will lose out to rivals that do pay up.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to maintain the status quo: that there should be no discrimination against internet traffic, and that content should have an equal opportunity to reach users.
Internet providers want the extra dosh to bankroll the hardware needed to improve connections and beef up the internet's arteries. But the FCC says letting people pay for more room on the road will tilt the web in favour of the richest companies.
Verizon has argued that the FCC is stepping beyond its statutory authority: the communications giant claims the watchdog is "arbitrary and capricious", and is violating the telco's right to free speech and control over what and how its networks operate.
The FCC has said that its demand for an "open internet" establishes basic rules for all ISPs, both fixed and mobile, so it's not directed at anyone in particular and it doesn't interfere with specific licences.
In 2011, Verizon announced it was taking the FCC to the Court of Appeals in Washington DC to strike down that order: the outcome of the case (PDF), due to start today and finish in 2014, will have major ramifications for the degree of regulatory power the FCC has over ISPs.
NetCompetition, a group sponsored by broadband companies including Verizon, said the US regulator wants "carte blanche to grant itself unbounded authority going forward".
"Essentially, the FCC made up an industry problem that does not exist in order to repurpose itself for the Internet age," the group claimed.
Meanwhile, Democrats in Washington have said that they will push against the court's decision if it sides with Verizon.
This is the FCC's second time defending a net neutrality case in court, having earlier lost one against Comcast. The commission punished Comcast in 2008 for blocking access for some users to file-sharing network BitTorrent. The cable company appealed the ruling to the same court due to hear the Verizon complaint, which said in 2010 that the commission did not have the authority to regulate an internet service provider. ®