Federal appeals court upholds net neutrality rules

The FCC scored a big win this morning when a Washington, D.C., federal appeals court upheld the legal authority behind its Open Internet Order, which defines rules for net neutrality. The decision is a blow to the wireless carriers and cable TV providers that brought the suit against the FCC, although the battle is far from over.

The FCC voted in February 2015 to codify new net neutrality regulations for wireless and wireline networks in a move that would bar blocking and throttling of content as well as banning carriers and ISPs from striking deals with content companies to deliver their offerings to consumers more quickly. AT&T (NYSE: T) and CTIA are among a small army of companies and trade groups that filed suit against the FCC in the following weeks, claiming the new rules are "arbitrary and capricious" and violate federal law.

Among other claims that the court rejected were arguments that the rules violate the First Amendment rights of service providers.

"Petitioners and their amici offer various grounds for distinguishing broadband service from other kinds of common carriage, none of which we find persuasive," the court wrote. "Telegraph and telephone networks similarly involve the transmission of speech. Yet the communicative intent of the individual speakers who use such transmission networks does not transform the networks themselves into speakers."

Predictably, the ruling was applauded by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who has made net neutrality a top priority during his tenure.

"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," Wheeler said in prepared remarks. "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."

But while Wheeler's victory is important, it is almost surely far from decisive. The companies that brought the lawsuit are highly likely to appeal to the Supreme Court and will continue to pressure federal legislators to step in to decide the matter.

"The wireless industry remains committed to preserving an open internet and will pursue judicial and congressional options to ensure a regulatory framework that provides certainty for consumers, investors and innovators," CTIA CEO Meredith Attwell Baker said in a prepared statement. "For the U.S. to remain the global mobile leader, we need rules that help promote consumer access to 5G and the Internet of Things without subjecting the wireless industry to investment-chilling public utility regulation. In the interim, we urge the FCC to support innovative new services, like free data, that benefit consumers and reflect the highly competitive mobile market."

For more:
- read the court's ruling (PDF)

Related articles:
AT&T joins industry groups in suing the FCC over net neutrality rules
FCC sends net neutrality rules to Federal Register, sets stage for telco, industry challenges
T-Mobile urges FCC to 'tread lightly' regarding net neutrality

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