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Basic Internet Economics At Stake In Net Neutrality Suit


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Audie Cornish. Time now for All Tech Considered.


CORNISH: The Internet has been one of the great engines of economic growth. How to keep it that way is at the center of a federal court case today. Verizon is suing to scrap regulations that prevent Internet providers from charging different rates for different kinds of websites. The FCC calls these rules the Open Internet Order. They argue that it keeps cyberspace equally accessible to everyone. That's an idea known as Net Neutrality.

NPR's Laura Sydell has been following the case and joins me now. And, Laura, exactly what is Verizon's argument here?

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Well, Verizon is saying, we have spent billions of dollars building out networks all over the country, so we should have the right to manage the traffic on these networks. So let's take Netflix. When you and I watch movies on Netflix, that takes a lot of bandwidth - video generally does. If everyone on my block is watching Netflix at the same time, Verizon and other Internet service providers say it can slow down traffic for, I don't know, say, your neighbor who's in the middle of the block and she's just trying to send emails or do research on a new plumber.

So Verizon wants to be able to charge Netflix and other bandwidth hogs extra for a sort of fast lane to you and me. So Netflix would pay more, and that way, they won't interfere with the lady looking for a plumber.

CORNISH: So why does the FCC have this rule

SYDELL: The FCC says that Verizon actually shouldn't be able to favor one kind of online traffic over another. So let's say there's a startup that's trying to promote some other kind of new video service - could happen - and they have to compete against Netflix, which already has pretty deep pockets. So for the Netflixes of the world, they will probably be able to pay to get that high-speed connection to you and me.

The startup, on the other hand, isn't going to have access to that fast lane or they're going to have to raise money. So people who want an open Internet are trying to take what, you know, this isn't as interesting as peanut butter and jelly wings. They're trying to take this and make it interesting.

And there's a mockumentary out there making its way around the Internet. It features a cameo appearance from Robin Chase who started Zipcar. And in the movie, she says if ISPs could have charged more for her new company, she never would have made it.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: You have people that are just clogging up the pipes, that are taking bandwidth.

ROBIN CHASE: But, you know, if they're taking bandwidth, that means that someone is liking that service. I started a company called Zipcar that you rent cars by the hour and by the day instead of owning your own car. People love the idea, and it was because of an open Internet that they could find me.

SYDELL: So Robin Chase is actually pretty representative of a lot of Internet companies who make the same argument, you know, and that includes Facebook and Google.

CORNISH: So is that what the argument's focused on in court today?

SYDELL: Yes, though it really focused on a very narrow question, which is whether or not the FCC even has the right to regulate Verizon or any other Internet service provider. So for example, Verizon is saying that the FCC can't regulate the Internet the way it regulates phone lines. On your phone, they can't put some conversations on a better line.

CORNISH: So any sense of where the court stood?

SYDELL: Mm-hmm. Well, Gigi Sohn, who is the head of the consumer group Public Knowledge - and she supports the FCC, and she was in the courtroom - and she says things did not look good for her friends.

GIGI SOHN: There was a clear thread from at least two of the three judges questioning whether the rules themselves might be impermissible. They felt that the FCC was really trying to regulate broadband Internet access like a telephone service when they had already said that they weren't going to do so.

CORNISH: So, Laura, how long before we find out how the judges rule?

SYDELL: Well, you know, nobody knows for sure. But I would say it's probably going to be several months before we know. And there will probably be more mockumentaries and things out there online to keep us busy thinking about the issue.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Laura Sydell. Laura, thank you.

SYDELL: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and
Audie Cornish
Over two decades of journalism, Audie Cornish has become a recognized and trusted voice on the airwaves as co-host of NPR's flagship news program, All Things Considered.