Network Neutrality Rules Upheld by Federal Court

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The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit upheld the Federal Communications Commission’s network neutrality rules, handing the FCC a major victory in its efforts to step up oversight of cable and telephone companies that provide broadband service.

The ruling means endorses the FCC’s definition of broadband Internet access service as a telecommunications service, clearing the way for more rigorous policing of broadband providers and greater protections for web users. The FCC’s rules prohibit broadband companies from blocking or slowing the delivery of internet content to consumers. The panel of three judges who heard the case agreed that wireless broadband services were also common carrier utility services subject to anti-blocking and discrimination rules, a decision protested by wireless carriers including AT&T and Verizon Wireless. The court’s majority rejected a wide range of telecommunications-industry challenges to the rules, which were put in place in 2015.

The same appeals court had twice rejected earlier efforts by the FCC to impose net neutrality rules on Internet service providers.

In the core decision, the D.C. circuit court ruled the FCC had sufficient basis to impose utility-style regulation on broadband service, because consumers no longer look to internet-service providers to provide the online content they are seeking. “Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie,” the court wrote. “The same assuredly cannot be said” for broadband providers’ own add-on applications. The appeals court’s 2-1 ruling sided with the FCC in a dense, methodical opinion that rejected the challengers’ various arguments one by one. The DC Circuit majority said its role in reviewing the net-neutrality regulations was “a limited one.” The court said its job was “to ensure that an agency has acted within the limits of Congress’s delegation of authority.”

The FCC’s rules fell permissibly within those limits, the court said. The court verdict puts to rest — for now — a key question: Whether the Internet represents a vital communications platform that deserves to be regulated with the same scrutiny as the common networks of the past, such as the telephone system. Writing for the court, Judges David Tatel and Sri Srinivasan held that despite advances in technology, the underlying importance of the Internet to everyday communications and commerce makes it more similar to the phone system than not. Today, for example, consumers are accustomed to using not just the email accounts that their broadband provider gave them, but also using third-party services such as Gmail as well as Netflix, Amazon and Uber.

Industry appeals to the US Supreme Court appear likely.


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