The federal appeals court ruling today that struck down the FCC's Net Neutrality rules is the latest chapter in a long saga, and it leaves the next move uncertain as new FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and crew decide whether to file an appeal.
What's interesting about the ruling is that it actually upheld the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's right to impose such rules. The court effectively said the agency can regulate the Internet, but it said the rules as they currently exist in the FCC's Open Internet Order couldn't be applied to broadband Internet service providers. The FCC had already indicated that these companies are not common carriers and thus not subject to regulation. (See Bye Bye Net Neutrality?)
That sets up the possibility of the FCC reclassifying the broadband ISPs as common carriers -- a process that would be lengthy and hard-fought on all sides -- or appealing the ruling and arguing that Net Neutrality regulations aren't common carrier rules.
The Washington Post reported that Judge David Tatel of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, who wrote the opinion, noted that the Communications Act prohibits the FCC from regulating companies that it says are not common carriers.
Wheeler responded to the ruling almost immediately by saying the FCC is keeping its options open and could appeal. "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." (See Wheeler Walks Line on Net Neutrality.)
The reactions of the two Republican commissioners seemed to indicate little interest in more court action. Commissioner Ajit Pai said the latest ruling was a sign that the agency should "take no for an answer." Commissioner Mike O'Reilly said the FCC should stop looking to impose "prophylactic regulations" and focus on removing obstacles to broadband investment and innovation.
Other reactions went along the expected lines. Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), which brought the court challenge, applauded the decision but said it will not impact consumers' ability to access content via the Internet. In its reaction, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) also pledged its commitment to an open Internet.
Consumer groups such as Public Knowledge expressed alarm at the ruling and its potential for allowing large ISPs to control access to the Internet and harm innovation. Harold Feld, senior vice president for Public Knowledge, said in a press release that the ruling could impair the FCC's ability to manage regulations in the transition to an all-IP network. However, he also said the court left the door open for the FCC to "craft open Internet protection [regulations] that are not full fledged common carrier rules. Alternatively, if the FCC needs broader authority it can classify broadband as a title 2 common carrier service."
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading