The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has to go back to the drawing board if it wants to keep fast broadband Internet service open to us all.
A ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia on Tuesday struck down FCC rules that protect the openness of the Internet.
It’s the latest twist in the years-long battle over “Net neutrality.”
"I remain firmly committed to Net neutrality so we can keep the Internet as it should be: open and free," said President Barack Obama in May 2009.
In 2010, the FCC put rules in place that prohibit broadband providers such as Verizon and AT&T from blocking lawful content.
The rules also prohibit these providers from discriminating against any traffic on the system — meaning all content on the Internet would be treated equally. That includes streaming movies, online gaming and browsing websites.
In 2011, Verizon sued the FCC, arguing that the agency did not have the authority from Congress to make these rules.
While the D.C. court upheld the FCC’s authority over broadband services, it tossed out the FCC's rules, saying they were built using a flawed legal argument.
At the heart of this debate is what is called “common carrier” regulation, a notion born out of services like public transportation.
Common carriage laws are meant to ensure that all people have access to fundamental services.
In that way, the Internet is like a highway, and Internet service providers are like a bus company. A bus company that transports passengers from one city to another and is free to operate as a business on U.S. roads.
Because that company is using a public roadway, the carrier cannot discriminate between customers.
Similarly, common carriage is used to guarantee that no matter if passengers use a lot or a little of the Internet, they can all ride the same bus.
The court ruled that the FCC used the common carrier law as the basis for its Internet rules. And since common carrier rules don’t apply to broadband, the FCC rules are invalid.
The FCC has many avenues to get around the ruling. It can rewrite the rules, using a different legal argument. Or it can appeal the court decision. Congress can also pass a law covering broadband and Internet openness.
The stakes for Americans are high, because in an Internet without rules, passengers might be allowed on the bus only if they pay to ride with the biggest players in the content industry.
Is it ethical for service providers to have the power to restrict access to websites?
What will a loss in Net neutrality mean for users of the Internet?
How will the decision affect the future of the Web?
We consulted a panel of experts for the Inside Story.
The above panel was assembled for the broadcast of "Inside Story" to discuss.
For future hard-hitting conversations, find Al Jazeera America on your TV.