A federal appeals court on Tuesday threw out rules from the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, that required Internet service providers to treat all Internet traffic equally, a principle known as “Net neutrality.”
The decision in the case, which pitted telecommunications giant Verizon against the FCC's Open Internet rules, might open the door for ISPs to charge major companies like Google or Facebook for speedier access to content, edging out smaller content providers.
The United States Court of Appeals in D.C. ruled that FCC Net neutrality rules were invalid because the Commission had previously classified the Internet as an “information service” rather than as a “telecommunications service.”
“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act (of 1996) expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such,” reads the ruling.
The FCC can still attempt to reclassify broadband providers as a telecommunications service, a step that the court says would give the FCC more oversight power.
Proponents of Net neutrality say Internet users should be able to access any web content and use any applications they choose, without restrictions or varying charges imposed by Internet service providers or the government.
The FCC further maintains that equal access to the Internet is necessary to facilitate a competitive market, encouraging the investment and innovation that has driven growth in the Internet sector for decades. Without the Open Internet rules, the FCC says, richer companies will reap an unfair advantage.
The ISPs that built these networks, on the other hand, argue the FCC has no right to intervene in how they manage their information pipelines.
"We look forward to working with the FCC and Congress to keep the Internet a hub of innovation without the need for unnecessary new regulations that seek to manage the explosive dynamism of the Internet," Verizon said in a statement.
Internet law experts are split on the necessity of Net neutrality rules, said Jim Speta, a professor at Northwestern University School of Law who specializes in telecommunications law. "My own view is that the Open Internet rules are not necessary to maintain a broadly open and competitive Internet ecosystem, but that's where the essential fight is in the policy space."
Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman, said in a statement that the Commission would consider an appeal of the ruling.
“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.”
Tuesday’s ruling was not all bad news for the FCC, however. Without defining specific parameters, the court acknowledged the FCC’s authority to govern the Internet, which has long been disputed.
"The short game is that it’s a win for Verizon on getting the most burdensome parts of the Open Internet rules struck down," Speta told Al Jazeera.
"But in the more important long game, the FCC mostly wins the day because the court recognized statutory authority for the FCC to regulate broadband markets. It's a big win for the Commission and a big change to the regulatory landscape."