A federal court ruling on Jan. 14 striking down “net neutrality” could forever change consumers’ access to the full Internet experience, observers say.
Web surfers could find themselves having to pay to watch videos on YouTube or seeing traffic on their favorite news site slow to a crawl now that the court has overturned a 2010 Federal Communications Commission (FCC) rule meant to stop Internet service providers (ISP) from playing favorites or discriminating against specific content sources.
The FCC rule was championed by President Obama, who said in 2010 that he felt it was necessary to preserve the “democratic spirit” of cyberspace by helping to “preserve the free and open nature of the Internet while encouraging innovation, protecting consumer choice, and defending free speech.”
Supporters were afraid ISPs would, for example, bog down the websites of rival companies while boosting their own, among other abuses. Others were concerned that if premium content came with a cost, it could be prohibitive for poorer consumers thus limiting their access.
The FCC safeguard was undone, however, by its own writing of the law, which classified ISPs as information services instead of telecommunications services, exempting them from common carrier anti-discrimination rules. As a result, the agency did not have the statutory authority to enforce the policy, the court ruled in Verizon v. FCC.
“Given that the Commission has chosen to classify broadband providers in a manner that exempts them from treatment as common carriers, the Communications Act expressly prohibits the Commission from nonetheless regulating them as such,” Judge David S. Tatel, of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, wrote in the opinion. “Because the Commission has failed to establish that the anti-discrimination and anti-blocking rules do not impose per se common carrier obligations, we vacate those portions of the Open Internet Order.”
The decision was a win for telecommunications giant Verizon, which led the charge against the FCC rule. But Randal Milch, Verizon general counsel and executive vice president of public policy, said the company had no plans to implement a preferential access system.
"One thing is for sure: Today's decision will not change consumers' ability to access and use the Internet as they do now,” he said in a statement. “Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet, which provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where and how they want. This will not change in light of the court's decision.”
Some advocacy groups remain doubtful, however, despite such assurances. Rashad Robinson, executive director of ColorofChange.org, called the court’s decision a “blow,” particularly to consumers of color.
“Because the court has given Internet service providers the green light to start openly discriminating against web content they don't want to compete with, the Internet could very soon start looking like cable TV, where one corporation holds the power to decide which content we're able to access,” the communications advocacy group’s head said in a statement.
“Black folks' ability to be heard is now in real danger,” he added. “Our communities rely on the Internet to speak without a corporate filter, to access information and connect to the world, and to be able to organize and hold public officials and corporations accountable. Without decisive action by the FCC, just a handful of major corporations will control which voices are heard most easily — and which may never get heard at all.”
FCC commissioners have said they will consider all options to safeguard consumers, including a possible appeal.