Verizon has big plans for the Internet. And if that doesn't worry you, it should.
The company is trying to overturn the Federal Communications Commission's Open Internet Order, which prevents Internet service providers from blocking, throttling or otherwise discriminating against online content.
And in court last Monday, Verizon lawyer Helgi Walker made the company's intentions all too clear, saying the company wants to prioritize those websites and services that are willing to shell out for better access.
She also admitted that the company would like to block online content from those companies or individuals that don't pay Verizon's tolls.
This approach would undermine Net Neutrality, the principle that allows us to connect and communicate online without interference.
For years, ISPs like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have said that Net Neutrality rules are unnecessary. They've insisted they would never block access to one site or favor another.
These companies have also suggested that the millions of people who joined the movement to protect the open Internet were chasing goblins.
"Net Neutrality is a solution in search of a problem," Verizon's general counsel Randy Milch said in a 2010 speech.
In 2011, the company buttressed this spin with a "commitment" to Internet users. Verizon would not, it said, "prevent ... users of our service from sending and receiving the lawful content of [their] choice." Furthermore, Verizon said it would not "unduly discriminate against any lawful Internet content, application or service."
But now Verizon is preaching from a different pulpit.
In court last week, the judges asked whether the company intended to favor certain websites over others.
"I'm authorized to state from my client today," Verizon attorney Walker said, "that but for these rules we would be exploring those types of arrangements."
Walker's admission might have gone unnoticed had she not repeated it on at least five separate occasions during oral arguments.
In response to Judge Laurence Silberman's line of questioning about whether Verizon should be able to block any website or service that doesn't pay the company's proposed tolls, Walker said: "I think we should be able to; in the world I'm positing, you would be able to."
Protecting the Marketplace of Ideas
This comment didn't come as too much of a surprise, given that it came from the same company whose lawyers have argued that Verizon has the First Amendment right to "edit" (read "censor or throttle") Internet content.
At its core Verizon's attack on the FCC is an attack on the idea that regulators have any role to ensure affordable access to an open Internet. Now more than ever we need policies to protect consumers and users of all communications. And as all media converges on digital networks that means policies that protect Net Neutrality.
While Verizon and other ISPs are already raking in immense profits from connecting users to the Internet, they see even higher margins in being able to tell us where to go once we're online. By charging a premium so wealthy businesses can jump to the front of the line, they're playing a game with data delivery that would shove all other sites to the back.
"I think the people who talk about dismantling -- threatening -- Net Neutrality don't appreciate how important it has been for us to have an independent market for productivity and for applications on the Internet," World Wide Web inventor Sir Tim Berners-Lee has said.
Indeed, Berners-Lee built the World Wide Web on an open protocol that gives everyday users the power to go wherever they wish.
This approach has given us a truly free marketplace of ideas where even the smallest entrepreneur can compete with giant corporations. (Would we have many of the Internet's most innovative businesses -- like Twitter, YouTube and FourSquare -- had they been unable to enter the market on a level playing field?). Without the inherent protections an open Internet offers political voices who lack a big-money megaphone will get drowned out.
The Internet will look a whole lot different if network operators get to favor one online business or speaker over another. We can't let the Verizons of the world turn the Web into their own private fiefdoms where they award express service to their corporate and political allies and shunt everyone else to the side.
Verizon has put its cards on the table. Under its preferred scenario, the open Internet no longer exists. Whatever the outcome of this court case, we need to fight to protect the open Internet -- and stop Verizon's vision from becoming reality.