Court Rejects Plea to Block FCC’s Net-Neutrality Rules

Net-neutrality rules will take effect Friday, but the broader legal war will drag on.

Protesters rally to support net neutrality outside of the Federal Communications Commission on May 15, 2014.
National Journal
June 11, 2015, 12:28 p.m.

A fed­er­al court re­jec­ted a bid by cable and tele­com com­pan­ies to block net-neut­ral­ity rules Thursday, pav­ing the way for the ex­pans­ive new In­ter­net reg­u­la­tions to take ef­fect Fri­day.

The rul­ing by the U.S. Court of Ap­peals for the Dis­trict of Columbia Cir­cuit is a re­lief to the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion, which en­acted the rules in Feb­ru­ary. But the leg­al battle over net neut­ral­ity is far from over.

As­so­ci­ations for the cable pro­viders, tele­com com­pan­ies, and cel­lu­lar car­ri­ers plan to con­tin­ue their fight to re­peal the rules after they take ef­fect. The groups warn the reg­u­la­tions will stifle in­vest­ment in broad­band net­works, ul­ti­mately lead­ing to worse In­ter­net ser­vice for every­one.

In a brief state­ment, the three judge pan­el of the D.C. Cir­cuit said that the In­ter­net pro­viders had “not sat­is­fied the strin­gent re­quire­ments” needed to sus­pend the rules while their law­suit is pending.

The court did grant the re­quest from both the com­pan­ies and the FCC to fast-track the case to get a fi­nal rul­ing as soon as pos­sible.

“This is a huge vic­tory for In­ter­net con­sumers and in­nov­at­ors!” FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said in a state­ment. “Start­ing Fri­day, there will be a ref­er­ee on the field to keep the In­ter­net fast, fair and open.”

The FCC’s net-neut­ral­ity rules bar In­ter­net pro­viders from block­ing web­sites, se­lect­ively slow­ing down traffic, or cre­at­ing “fast lanes” for sites that pay. Sup­port­ers of the rules ar­gue that they are ne­ces­sary to keep In­ter­net pro­viders from act­ing as gate­keep­ers and con­trolling what people can ac­cess on­line. Pres­id­ent Obama, who prom­ised to sup­port net neut­ral­ity in his 2008 cam­paign, urged the FCC last Novem­ber to en­act the “strongest pos­sible” rules. 

The FCC first en­acted net-neut­ral­ity rules in 2010, but the D.C. Cir­cuit struck them down in early 2014. In at­tempt to bol­ster the chances of the new rules in court, the FCC dra­mat­ic­ally ex­pan­ded its own reg­u­lat­ory au­thor­ity. The new rules clas­si­fy In­ter­net ser­vice un­der the same reg­u­lat­ory re­gime as tele­phones.

The in­dustry groups ar­gue that Con­gress nev­er in­ten­ded to sub­ject In­ter­net ser­vice to such a bur­den­some reg­u­lat­ory clas­si­fic­a­tion. The com­mis­sion’s de­cision also vi­ol­ates rules for agency pro­ced­ures, they claim.

The In­ter­net pro­viders say they only op­pose clas­si­fy­ing In­ter­net ser­vice as a util­ity, and not the prin­ciple of net neut­ral­ity it­self. But the FCC ar­gues that over­turn­ing the reg­u­lat­ory clas­si­fic­a­tion would leave the rules un­en­force­able. 

The in­dustry groups said the D.C. Cir­cuit’s rul­ing was dis­ap­point­ing, but not un­ex­pec­ted. Con­vin­cing a court to block rules be­fore they even take ef­fect is usu­ally a leg­al long shot. But the groups praised the court for agree­ing to ex­ped­ite their law­suit.

“We are now ready to get to the mer­its of the case and are con­fid­ent as ever that we will pre­vail,” the Na­tion­al Cable and Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions As­so­ci­ation said in a state­ment.

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