RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
And in a Washington, D.C. court of appeals today, oral arguments begin in a case that could shape how we use the Internet. At issue is whether the federal government can stop Internet service providers from slowing or blocking certain online content.
NPR's Dan Bobkoff reports this case pits Verizon against the Federal Communications Commission.
DAN BOBKOFF, BYLINE: A big reason why the FCC and Verizon are in court today, why the future of the Internet is at stake is because of this guy.
ROBB TOPOLSKI: I'm a barbershop quartet singer. I'm a baritone in a barbershop quartet.
BOBKOFF: Robb Topolski really loves barbershop quartet music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKNESS ON THE DELTA")
UNKNOWN SINGERS: (Singing) When it's darkness on the Delta.
BOBKOFF: In 2007, Topolski developed some health problems, and was spending more time at home. So he started using the file sharing software BitTorrent to swap some of his favorite barbershop tunes.
TOPOLSKI: Wait till the sun shines, Nelly. She's rather to be pitied than censured, the darkness on the Delta.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DARKNESS ON THE DELTA")
SINGERS: (Singing) When it's darkness on the Delta, well, let me linger in the shelter of the night.
BOBKOFF: And, that's when he noticed something odd about his Internet connection.
TOPOLSKI: I found that the uploads that were quite popular before had stopped.
BOBKOFF: Topolski is a techy guy and did some sleuthing. And he came to the conclusion that his Internet service provider Comcast was slowing his BitTorrent traffic.
Topolski thought there was such a thing as net neutrality, that all data is treated equally by whatever company pipes it into your home. No fast lanes. No slow lanes. No roadblocks, no matter what you're downloading, even barbershop tunes.
TOPOLSKI: I was shocked. I thought it was a stupid move.
BOBKOFF: So, he went public. The Associated Press picked up the story and tried downloading the King James Bible on Comcast using BitTorrent. Even the Bible stalled out. Net neutrality started entering the vernacular.
The FCC cited Comcast for its practices in 2008. Comcast appealed. And the same court hearing today's case decided that the FCC did not prove it had the authority to regulate broadband Internet.
Gigi Sohn heads the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. She says the commission then came up with a new net neutrality standard that it says it does have the power to enforce.
GIGI SOHN: And Verizon is saying no you don't. Your decision-making here, your legal theory for why you have the power to adopt network neutrality rules is no better than it was in the Comcast case.
BOBKOFF: This is what today's case between Verizon and the FCC is about. Does the commission that was established by Congress to regulate radio and telephone service have any oversight over broadband Internet?
CRAIG MOFFETT: The biggest issue at stake here is really the future of the FCC as a government agency.
BOBKOFF: Craig Moffett is an industry analyst and partner at MoffettNathanson. He says more and more of us are getting telephone, radio, and TV over broadband Internet.
MOFFETT: If the FCC doesn't have jurisdiction over broadband, then the FCC as an agency has jurisdiction over nothing.
BOBKOFF: Whether that's a bad thing depends on your point of view. Robert McDowell is a former FCC commissioner and now with the Hudson Institute. McDowell doesn't think the FCC has the legal authority to regulate broadband, nor should it.
ROBERT MCDOWELL: Everyone wants an open and freedom-enhancing Internet. And that's what we had before these rules, and that's what we still have even after the rules.
BOBKOFF: He thinks the market is more competitive now, and public pressure and bad PR will help stop abuses, and that the providers themselves do the best job of managing their Internet pipes.
He's hoping Verizon prevails in the case. But if it does, net neutrality proponents like Gigi Sohn say the Internet could become a place where an Internet service provider can pick winners, even if that winner is itself.
SOHN: And it says, hey, you know what, you compete with my telephone service, Skype, or you compete with my telephone service, FaceTime, so I'm not going to let you on my system at all.
BOBKOFF: Even if Verizon wins, Robb Topolski, the barbershop quartet fan turned net neutrality crusader, says he still wants some kind of protection.
TOPOLSKI: Somebody is going to have to come up with the legal structure that assures the public that it is getting what it's paid for when it subscribes to internet service.
BOBKOFF: And, what the court decides could determine whether we can download whatever movies, books, and barbershop tunes our hearts desire.
Dan Bobkoff, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.