An appeals court in Washington on Tuesday ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)'s 'net neutrality' rules, which prevent provider companies such as Verizon from favouring some internet traffic over others, are invalid.
The court's ruling upsets the FCC's practice of requiring broadband internet providers to act like 'common carriers' – essentially the same as phone, not giving special preference to one type of traffic over another.
The court decided the case on technical grounds, ruling the agency had to go back and implement formal common carrier standards if it wanted to make ISPs act like common carriers — meaning the rules are dead for now but could return in the future.
Threats to smaller websites
The ruling could open the door for internet companies to make deal with large content providers, like Netflix, to ensure that their web content is delivered faster and more reliably than other sites. This could restrict consumer choice and provide a threat to smaller websites without the resources to pay for an express broadband service.
The appeals court itself appeared clearly aware of the heavy policy implications of its decision, noting that those in favour of net neutrality feared that "a broadband provider like Comcast might limit its end-user subscribers' ability to access the New York Times website if it wanted to spike traffic to its own news website."
But the judges also refer to the remarks of two FCC Commissioners' who recently opposed the anti-blocking rules on the grounds they might impede innovation.
"The court clearly left the FCC authority to do something," said Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, a net neutrality advocate, adding that Congress could also write new laws to further empower the FCC.
The Internet Association, which represents big Silicon Valley firms like Google, said in a statement: "The Internet creates new jobs, new technologies, and new ways of communicating around the globe. Its "innovation without permission" ecosystem flows from a decentralized, open architecture that has few barriers to entry. Yet, the continued success of this amazing platform should not be taken for granted."