Federal Court Allows FCC Open Internet Rules to Go Forward

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An appeals court decision will allow federal rules that supporters say protect a free and open Internet to go forward—over the objections of telecommunications providers. 

Those rules were established by the Federal Communications Commission earlier this year, amid a furious campaign by the telecom industry and other interests—and amid waves of broad public angst over the possibility of additional restrictions on the flow of Internet access.

A three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals said it will not postpone FCC policies on “net neutrality,” despite a request for delay sought by the U.S. Telecom Association. The judges said the request had not met the “stringent requirements” for a delay. That means the rules will go into effect Friday, FCC commissioners said.

That doesn’t mean the legal fight over the rules is over. The court agreed with the telecom industry’s request that both sides in the cases turn in a plan for submitting briefs, and a schedule for briefing the court within two weeks.

Numerous consumer groups feared that the FCC would open the door for telecoms to allow well-heeled content providers to pay for faster Internet access to online consumers, relegating others to an Internet slow lane.

Some school organizations feared that schools’ access to free online academic materials and video could get relegated to second-class status if telecoms were allowed to create fast and slow lanes. Ed-tech startups reliant on unrestricted Web access said they also worried that federal action would limit their ability to compete.

The FCC was compelled to address the net neutrality issue when a federal appeals court in the District of Columbia last year ruled that the agency did not have the authority to prevent telecommunications providers from blocking or otherwise discriminating against certain content providers. The decision in that case, which stemmed from a lawsuit brought by Verizon, was widely viewed as a setback for net neutrality.

Numerous consumer groups, as well as TV personality John Oliver—in a commentary that came to define the issue in some quarters—urged FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a former cable and telecom industry official, to hold firm and protect neutrality.

Wheeler, who put forward the new FCC rules protecting neutrality, on Thursday applauded the appeals court’s decision.

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

Wheeler added: “Blocking, throttling, pay-for-priority fast lanes and other efforts to come between consumers and the Internet are now things of the past. The rules also give broadband providers the certainty and economic incentive to build fast and competitive broadband networks.”

The FCC chairman, a Democrat, was appointed by President Barack Obama, who has argued strongly in favor of maintaining a free and open Internet.

The two Republicans on the five-member FCC both voiced disappointment with the court’s decision, while noting that the overall legal challenge will go forward. They have said the FCC is overreaching its authority with the rules, which they believe with stymie industry innovation.

“[U]nless eradicated [the net-neutrality rules] will ultimately harm the foundations of the Internet, and limit its possibilities,”  Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said in a statement. “In the meantime, I will be vigilant in resisting any attempts by the agency to act as a referee enforcing rules known to none of the players and made up along the way.”

UPDATE: This post has been updated comments from Republican commissioners and details from the court’s order.

Photo: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, center, joins hands with Commissioners Mignon Clyburn, left, and Jessica Rosenworcel, before their hearing on net neutrality issues earlier this year in Washington.

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