Appeals Court Strikes Down Open Internet Rules

On Tuesday, a federal appeals court struck down Federal Communications Commission rules that would prevent Internet service providers from restricting usage on their networks and charging companies and users more for faster service. Critics say that this will create a two-tiered Internet that will favor those who can pay.

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A federal appeals court has struck down rules set up by the Federal Communications Commission. The rules required Internet service providers, such as Verizon and Comcast, to treat all traffic on their services equally, what's known as net neutrality. As NPR's Laura Sydell reports, the decision has consumer advocates worried that providers will try to restrict access to certain websites and services.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: The FCC established something it called open Internet rules in 2010. The rules said that your Internet service provider can't make a special deal with Netflix and then block traffic or slow traffic to, say, Amazon Prime. Harold Feld is with the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge.

HAROLD FELD: The consumer perspective is I want to choose. I want to choose whether I'm going to get Netflix or Amazon Prime or iTunes, and I'd like them all to work equally well.

SYDELL: Today, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit said the FCC doesn't have the authority to tell Verizon, which brought the case, or any other broadband provider that it can't block Amazon or iTunes. But in its opinion, the court essentially said that the FCC put itself in this position when it decided not to classify Internet service providers the same way it classifies phone service. Phone companies are called common carriers, and they're regulated more strictly because of how essential phone service is to the public.

In a statement, Verizon lauded the court's decision, saying stricter regulation on broadband providers stifles innovation. Scott Cleland is chairman of NetCompetition. He says the company should be able to do what they want with their networks because they've invested a trillion dollars building them.

SCOTT CLELAND: And it was all based on the assumption that they would have a competitive market where they would have the freedom to price and invest and earn a return on investment.

SYDELL: But the Internet has become increasingly essential to modern life in the same way that the telephone used to be. The FCC has been trying to strike a balance between the public interest and making certain that a new technology like the Internet isn't overly regulated, says George Foote. He's an attorney who represents clients in the telecommunications industries.

GEORGE FOOTE: The FCC has twisted itself into pretzels to avoid treating the Internet as a regulated common carrier.

SYDELL: The FCC indicated that the commission had not given up on trying to enforce some kind of open Internet regulations. In a statement, chairman Tom Wheeler said the commission is assessing all available options, including an appeal to ensure that the networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression. The FCC does have the power to reclassify the Internet as a common carrier like the phone companies. But Feld of Public Knowledge says when the commission tried to do that in 2010...

FELD: There was a huge political firestorm around it and the FCC backed off.

SYDELL: In its decision, the federal appeals court did say that the FCC has authority to ensure deployment of broadband infrastructure. In other words, making sure everyone has service. This means that there is still room for the FCC to make certain rules. There's also been chatter in Congress about updating the Communications Act for the digital age. But for the time being, all eyes are on the broadband providers who insist they want to keep your business, so they have no interest in blocking or slowing service to your favorite website. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

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