Net Neutrality Wins Big

The United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with the F.C.C. today, ruling that high-speed broadband is a utility.

Tom Wheeler, Chairman of the F.C.C., celebrated what Jon Brodkin called a “total victory”:

“Today’s ruling is a victory for consumers and innovators who deserve unfettered access to the entire Web, and it ensures the Internet remains a platform for unparalleled innovation, free expression and economic growth,” Wheeler said in a statement issued shortly after the ruling. “After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the Commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible internet protections—both on fixed and mobile networks—that will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future.”

The ACLU, long-time proponents of net neutrality, cheered the decision as well. In 2015, Lee Rowland explained:

Internet Service Providers are the literal gatekeepers to this world. When you get online and search for particular speech, you should have confidence that the results you see aren’t secretly filtered, altered, or slowed by your ISP because they don’t want you to see that particular speech.

If you go online to figure out which workers’ union you might want to join, you wouldn’t expect that your ISP is hiding access to a telecommunications workers union they’re locked in a political fight with. But, that happened in Canada. You probably wouldn’t guess that your Netflix queue didn’t load because your ISP is Comcast—which held Netflix fiscally hostage until they paid higher fees for access. That happened. Nor would you think that you could be prevented from using FaceTime to call your grandma, just because you use AT&T. Yeah, that happened too.

Without effective neutrality rules, ISPs can and will act as censors of digital information, rather than neutral conduits for the speech they carry over their networks. And you might not even realize it’s happening, because it’s difficult to identify what you’re not being shown.

This is also a landmark victory for President Obama:

The White House [called] the ruling a “victory for the open, fair and free Internet as we know it today.”

The White House said the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia allows the internet to remain open to innovation and economic growth without service providers serving as paid gatekeepers.

Klint Finley, however, says it’s not quite time for celebration:

Despite Wheeler’s exuberance, the fight for net neutrality is far from over. AT&T is already vowing to fight the decision. “We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” the company’s Senior Executive Vice President and General Counsel David McAtee said in a statement this morning. Meanwhile, congressional Republicans are still fighting to curb the FCC’s powers to enforce the net neutrality rules.

Although AT&T has promised to appeal the case, it’s not clear yet that the Supreme Court will choose to hear it. But even if it doesn’t, opponents are already busy deploying a number of tactics to undermine the FCC’s rules. Last week the House Appropriations Committee approved a budget plan that would cut the FCC’s funding by $69 million, and prohibit the agency from using its funds to enforce net neutrality until all the various legal challenges to the rules have been resolved—including appeals. The spending proposal is just the latest in a series of similar measures advanced by congressional Republicans.

Although President Barack Obama, who has voiced support for the FCC’s rules, would likely veto a spending bill that curbs those powers, if the GOP retakes the White House next year, some sort of rules restricting the FCC’s decisions are more likely to pass. But they might not need to. Although Wheeler has refused to confirm that he will step down once a new president is in office, it’s customary for the FCC chairman to resign to make room for a new appointment. If the new chairman is appointed by Donald Trump, you can bet the new appointee will work to overturn the agency’s net neutrality laws.

As though you needed another reason to keep a Democrat in the White House.

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