A US federal appeals court has upheld the concept of net neutrality, dealing a major blow to broadband providers who wished to establish a tiered system of internet access.
On Tuesday, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit handed down its ruling (viewable in full here) upholding the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 Open Internet Order classifying internet service providers as a public utility subject to the same type of rules as other essential communications services, such as the telephone.
Providers like AT&T and industry associations had filed their lawsuit based on their desire to offer higher traffic speeds to deep-pocketed customers, while relegating less wealthy website operators to the internet’s slow lane. The ISPs also claimed the right to block access to sites they found disagreeable.
Supporters of net neutrality argued that equal access to high-speed internet was integral to the ability of small startup firms to catch on with consumers, and that today’s internet giants like Facebook and Google wouldn’t have been able to attain such heights had they faced such obstacles.
In a 2-1 decision, the Court panel upheld the FCC’s right to saddle the broadband industry with the common carrier tag because the internet’s significance on everyday communications made it more similar to the telephone system than it was different. The majority judges noted that “it would be hard to deny” the fact that third-party internet content “has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives.”
The majority also rejected the ISP’s first amendment claims because internet users don’t automatically assume that content accessed via a certain broadband provider reflected the provider’s editorial judgment or viewpoint.
Having nothing to lose but money, the well-funded broadband industry plans to request a rehearing by the full DC Circuit court. If the industry goes down to defeat again, AT&T’s general counsel said the industry would pursue the matter to the US Supreme Court. The industry is also expected to lobby hard for Congressional Republicans to draft legislation that would undo the FCC’s efforts.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, who was appointed by President Obama, called Tuesday’s ruling “a victory for consumers and innovators who deserve unfettered access to the entire web.” Wheeler hoped the ruling would “ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future.”
However brief and temporary today’s celebrations may be, net neutrality supporters are nonetheless celebrating a victory for online freedom of choice. With any luck, this viewpoint will eventually become the de facto standard in countries around the world.