– Internet providers may be able to offer faster connections to preferred websites, or even block competitors
– This ruling, if it stands, will adversely affect the daily lives of Americans and fundamentally change the open nature of the internet, where uncensored access to information has been a hallmark of the communication medium since its inception
Appeals court rules against FCC’s right to protect ‘net neutrality’
Decision means internet service providers could slow or block traffic to competitors and privilege sites of commercial partners
Dan Roberts in Washington
theguardian.com, Tuesday 14 January 2014 12.33 EST
Internet providers may be able to offer faster connections to preferred websites, or even block competitors, after a US appeals court ruled that regulators could no longer enforce the principle known as “net neutrality”.
In a case seen as having profound implications for the future of digital innovation and free speech, the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favour of broadband giant Verizon, following a long-running challenge to the Federal Communications Commission’s rule-making powers.
FCC regulators had argued that forcing broadband providers to provide equal internet access and bandwidth to all lawful content was a cornerstone of the open internet, and that it encouraged innovation by stimulating a “virtuous circle” that drove infrastructure improvements for all users.
But Verizon and other broadband carriers maintain that it hampers their ability to strike commercial deals with content providers, and their ability to provide higher-speed access to premium material, such as high-definition films. The carriers argue deregulation could spur more growth in emerging markets like their own.
Regardless of the commercial impact, the decision from a panel of three judges drew immediate concern from free speech groups, who worry about the implications of undermining net neutrality in the US and internationally.
“This ruling, if it stands, will adversely affect the daily lives of Americans and fundamentally change the open nature of the internet, where uncensored access to information has been a hallmark of the communication medium since its inception,” Barbara Stripling, the president of the American Library Association, said in a statement.
“The court’s decision gives commercial companies the astounding legal authority to block internet traffic, give preferential treatment to certain internet services or applications, and steer users to or away from certain web sites based on their own commercial interests.”
The FCC said it would consider an appeal against the decision, which may now go to the full DC appeals court and could eventually wind up with the US supreme court.
“I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment,” said FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler. “We will consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.”
The opinion, to which one of the three judges dissented in part, argued that regardless of the merits of net neutrality, the FCC simply did not have the legal power to treat broadband carriers in the way that it does traditional telephone operators.
“Our task as a reviewing court is not to assess the wisdom of the Open Internet Order regulations, but rather to determine whether the commission has demonstrated that the regulations fall within the scope of its statutory grant of authority,” the opinion said. “Even though the commission has general authority to regulate in this arena, it may not impose requirements that contravene express statutory mandates.”
Verizon welcomed the decision, but insisted it would extend consumer choice in the future rather than limiting existing internet openness. “Today’s decision will not change consumers’ ability to access and use the internet as they do now,” said the company in a statement. “The court’s decision will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the internet.”
“Verizon has been and remains committed to the open internet which provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where, and how they want,” it added. “This will not change in light of the court’s decision.”
Pro-net neutrality activists argue that allowing powerful media companies to strike deals with broadband providers to promote their content over others could also hamper the growth of social media.
“The ability of the internet to spread and share ideas is only getting better,” Stripling added in her statement. “With modern technology, individuals and small groups can produce rich audio and video resources that used to be the exclusive domain of large companies. We must work to ensure that these resources are not relegated to second-class delivery on the internet – or else the intellectual freedoms fostered by the internet will be seriously constrained.”