The fate of the internet will once again rest in the hands of three federal judges when they hear oral arguments Friday in a pivotal challenge to the Federal Communications Commission.
From a sixth-floor courtroom in downtown Washington, D.C., FCC lawyers will argue that the agency acted correctly last year when it officially took its net neutrality rules off the books — legally clearing the way for internet providers to speed up, slow down or block apps and websites, if they choose.
State and local officials, tech companies and consumer groups are urging the court to countermand the FCC, saying the agency’s decision is based on a faulty analysis and flawed reasoning.
Without the protection of the net neutrality rules, supporters say, internet providers will be unconstrained in their ability to steer customers toward proprietary or partner services, reshaping the internet to their own commercial benefit and to the detriment of ordinary users.
“This wasn’t how the internet was meant to be,” said Denelle Dixon, COO of Mozilla, which makes the Firefox web browser and is leading the court fight against the FCC.
“An internet that enables consumer choice necessarily protects net neutrality. Without protecting net neutrality, (broadband providers) will control the internet experiences of everyone. And that cannot be what happens.”
Mozilla’s involvement, along with Etsy, Vimeo and tech-backed digital rights groups, underscores the tense relationship between well-heeled Silicon Valley companies and the powerful broadband providers they rely on to reach consumers.
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Caught in between are regulators who have written and rewritten the rules for net neutrality with every change in administration dating back to President George W. Bush.
The legal showdown marks the second time in four years the FCC has faced judicial review over its internet policies. In 2015, the positions were reversed, when Obama-era telecom regulators successfully defended the net neutrality rules from a lawsuit by internet providers.
Matthew Berry, FCC chief of staff, has said that since the net neutrality rules came off the books last summer, the internet has continued to thrive without the disastrous consequences that activists have predicted.
Opponents of the FCC cited research from Northeastern University that suggests some wireless carriers may have slowed down service to Netflix and other video providers. They also warn that internet providers are largely “on good behavior” during the court battle but easily could alter their tack.