Net Neutrality Struck Down By Federal Court

Net neutrality rules set by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 2010 have had key sections struck down in a new federal court ruling. A D.C. circuit court ruled on a case brought against the FCC by Verizon. The mobile phone carrier sought to challenge the FCC’s net neutrality rules, which includes prohibition against broadband discrimination. The court’s ruling mostly favored Verizon. The federal judges say the FCC does not have the power to make and enforce net neutrality rules.

The ruling confirms the fears held by many net neutrality supporters. While the federal court does not seek to undermine the FCC’s Open Internet regulations, it could not deny the limits of the FCC’s reach. The FCC is only allowed to oversee “common carriers ” — this does not include Internet Service Providers (ISPs), according to the court ruling. Older communications networks are still required to allow information to flow without interference. Broadband-based networks, however, are now exempt.

Though the ruling is bad news for advocates of net neutrality, the federal judges admit that internet discrimination is worthy of concern. In fact, in their 81-page ruling, they point to four scenarios that have already played out. This includes one situation where a mobile broadband provider blocked users’ ability to make online payments after coming to an agreement with a competing payment service.

With that recognition, the federal court left some of the FCC rules in place. The most significant includes a requirement for ISPs to disclose policies that oppose net neutrality to customers. So while broadband providers don’t have to abide by the FCC’s net neutrality rules, they do have to be forthcoming about it.

Judge David Tatel also expressed his concerns about the ruling. He argues that the FCC should have the power to regulate ISPs. In support of their case, the FCC argued that one of the agency’s goals is to promote broadband development. The net neutrality rules set in place in 2010, they told the court, aims to bolster these goals. This point, Tatel said, was “rational and supported by substantial evidence.”

Judge Tatel also fired back against Verizon’s argument that ISP regulation should fall to Congress rather than the FCC. Tatel says history shows that there’s no reason Congress “could not have delegated some of these decisions” to the FCC. The federal judge says he is concerned about the negative effects consumers face by not enforcing net neutrality. Ultimately, a lack of regulation may “represent a threat to internet openness.”

Despite Judge Tatel’s viewpoint, the court’s ruling is bad news for net neutrality advocates. Though the decision is a major setback, FCC chair Tom Wheeler vows to work to enforce net neutrality for ISPs. Legal options will be considered by the Commission, including a possible appeal. Wheeler says net neutrality is important not just for economic development, but for speech freedoms protected in the First Amendment.

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