The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Tuesday upheld the legality of the Federal Communications Commission's landmark net neutrality policy, in a resounding vindication of federal rules designed to ensure that all content on the internet is equally accessible.
"Today's ruling is a victory for consumers and innovators who deserve unfettered access to the entire web, and it ensures the internet remains a platform for unparalleled innovation, free expression and economic growth," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement.
"After a decade of debate and legal battles, today's ruling affirms the Commission's ability to enforce the strongest possible internet protections—both on fixed and mobile networks—that will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future."
Public interest advocates say the FCC's policy is necessary to maintain the internet as an open platform for free speech, economic growth, and civic empowerment. The nation's largest broadband companies challenged the rules, arguing that the FCC, which has twice before seen its open internet policy thrown out in federal court, overstepped its authority.
"Today, the Court of Appeals has affirmed the FCC's authority to protect consumers and innovation on the internet," Gene Kimmelman, President and CEO of Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "This decision should lay to rest what has become a needlessly contentious issue. Now consumers will be assured the right to full access to the internet without interference from gatekeepers."
Open internet advocates argue that without net neutrality, the emergence of the next Facebook or YouTube might be imperiled, because broadband providers could discriminate against such services in favor of their own offerings. Free speech advocates say that the FCC's policy is necessary to maintain the internet as an open platform for political organizing and activism.
Today's ruling is a victory for consumers and innovators.
In their legal challenge, the nation's largest cable and phone companies argued that the FCC overstepped its authority in 2015 by reclassifying internet service providers, or ISPs, as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act.
By doing so, the FCC claimed the authority to apply utility-style regulations originally designed for phone service to broadband internet access, in order to prohibit blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization deals, in which ISPs like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T favor certain content to the detriment of rivals.
"Today's ruling proves the FCC chose the correct legal path to protect internet users from discrimination by AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and other broadband providers," Free Press President and CEO Craig Aaron said in a statement. "The agency can now stay focused on safeguarding the open communications networks that power our democracy and our economy and on promoting broadband competition, privacy and affordable internet access for everyone."
Leading up to the verdict, net neutrality advocates were optimistic, in part because the DC Circuit signalled in 2014 that the FCC would be on stronger legal ground if it reclassified broadband companies as common carriers. The FCC decided to follow what it called the court's "roadmap," and in doing so, prevailed.
For FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the court ruling amounts to a vindication of the centerpiece of an ambitious agenda defined by his surprising willingness to challenge powerful industry interests.
Wheeler, who spent decades as a wireless and cable industry lobbyist, has emerged as an unlikely public interest hero, after fighting for strong net neutrality rules, encouraging community broadband networks, and working to expand internet access in low-income communities. (One blot on his Wheeler's record, according to some public interest groups? His support for Charter's mega-merger with Time Warner Cable.)
Even as the broadband industry mulls an appeal of its DC Circuit defeat to the Supreme Court, many of the nation's cable and telecom giants are experimenting with ways to get around the FCC's policy. One such practice, known as "zero-rating," undermines net neutrality, according to open internet advocates, because it involves broadband companies favoring certain services by not counting them against monthly data caps.
Meanwhile, Republicans in Congress are waging a relentless campaign to undermine FCC policies on net neutrality and several other issues, including the agency's Lifeline expansion and and its support for community broadband networks. Just last month, GOP lawmakers ignored a veto threat from Obama and passed legislation that open internet advocates say would eviscerate the FCC's net neutrality rules.
This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.