A landmark net neutrality case in Washington D.C. federal court could lead to Internet service providers deciding what services can be streamed through their networks, spelling doom for your Netflix or Hulu subscription.

Net neutrality, the idea that all users deserve equal access to online information, has governed the Internet since the beginning. Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have to be “neutral” about the content their customers access via their broadband network.

A Federal Communication Commission “Open Internet” rule passed in 2010 bans an ISP from blocking lawful content or other Internet services. Without an open Internet, rights activists say, companies like Facebook, Skype and Twitter would not have stood a chance.

“These rules provide an important safeguard both for innovation and investment on the Internet,” said David Sohn, an attorney with the Center for Democracy and Technology, which supports the FCC rule.

But Verizon isn’t happy with the FCC regulations. The company filed suit in federal court alleging the net neutrality rules violate their First Amendment rights. Since their broadband network transmits the speech of others, Verizon wants the right to “editorial discretion” over what their users do online.

Sohn said if Verizon gets that right it will lead to all ISPs playing “favorites” by blocking and degrading services like YouTube, Netflix or Hulu to make users utilize their own services or that of their partners.

“It is not up to the FCC to decide these issues on its own,” said Verizon attorney Helgi Walker. “It has no implied authority, no express authority … and it’s highly unlikely that Congress would have delegated authority in such a convoluted way.”

Verion and other service providers worry that if the FCC ever tightens regulation on broadband then prices might be regulated as well.

Verizon argues that the FCC overstepped its bounds with the Open Internet rules. The company claims that the FCC only documented four occasions in the last six years in which an ISP blocked content.

The FCC says the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and the Communications Act of 1934 give it the authority to enforce net neutrality.

“This affects most Americans who watch a move on Netflix or who make a phone call on Vonage,” said Pantelis Michalopoulos, lawyer for parties arguing in support of the FCC rules.

In December 2010, the FCC won a 3-2 majority that ensured the Internet “has no gatekeepers limiting innovation and communication through the network.”

The appeals hearing began Monday. Three judges on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit are not expected to rule for several months.

Sources: Raw Story, NPR