Federal Appeals Court Strikes Down Net Neutrality

Today, a federal appeals court struck down the Federal Communications Commission's net neutrality rules. These rules were supposed to level the playing field, offering small startups and consumers the same internet access as the big players (Google, Netflix, et al) who had the money to pay for premium access. The targets of the rules were those companies who brought the suit ruled upon today by the court: AT&T, Verizon & Comcast.The ruling, in a case brought by Verizon against the F.C.C., concerns at its heart the basic question of whether Internet service is a utility of such vital importance, like telephone lines or electricity, that it needs to be regulated closely.  At stake here is an Internet provider's ability to charge Web companies for better service, which public interest advocates say may harm consumers.  The purported benefit of the Net Neutrality rules is that consumers and small companies would have the same access to internet traffic as big companies who can afford to have their traffic prioritized. The flip side is that government puts itself in the position of regulating one of the most important mechanisms in the global economy today: the internet (is its a public good or not?) and that consumers wouldn't necessarily get access to premium traffic rights if they want ot pay for it (via XBOX or Netflix, for example). Broadband providers that have spent billions of dollars building their networks, said the ruling confirmed their right to manage their networks as they saw fit.

No matter your political sway or interpretation of the good or ill of Net Neutrality, there is some cause for celebration: this is pretty much guaranteed to head to the Supreme Court for appeal and this is just the sort of issue that requires the ruling of the highest court in the land. I suspect it would end up there no matter what the Federal Appeals Court ruling. Hell, that was pretty much determined when the FCC decided to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers back in 2002 under Chairman Michael Powell (now president of the cable industry’s chief lobbying group). While I think that's bunk (and shows how much the FCC  (or Congress, who really is the puppet master here) is in the pockets of the network owners. But, that said, if they are not common carriers, then its pretty hard to regulate them as such.

I do agree with the liberal point of view on this: carriers are now free to block or slow down any website, application or service they like. These companies will rush to change the Web and and profit from the result — creating new tolls for app makers, expensive price tiers for popular sites, and fast lanes open only to the few content providers that can afford them. Don't believe me?  Last week, AT&T announced their "Sponsored Data Plan": case in point. Now, just as Verizon promised it would in court, the biggest broadband providers will race to turn the open and vibrant Web into something that looks like cable TV—where they pick and choose the channels for you. They'll establish fast lanes for the few giant companies that can afford to pay exorbitant tolls and reserve the slow lanes for everyone else. “It leaves consumers at the mercy of a handful of cable and phone providers that can give preferential treatment to the content they profit from,” said Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union.