Advocates Call For FCC To Protect Net Neutrality

A federal appellate court struck down net neutrality rules today, leaving Internet service providers free to block Web sites, services and apps at will.

The ruling, issued by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, also invalidated the FCC's anti-discrimination regulations, which prevented ISPs from charging some companies more than others to put through traffic.

The upshot is that Comcast and Verizon won't face sanctions from the Federal Communications Commission for preventing consumers from searching on Google, or accessing Facebook. That's not to say that ISPs will start blocking sites -- just that the FCC rules prohibiting that sort of censorship have been invalidated.

Of course, even without FCC regulations, blocking traffic could prove politically disastrous for ISPs; if nothing else, an ISP's decision to start censoring the Web would almost certainly result in pushback from lawmakers.

Already, some ISPs are pledging to continue to put through traffic. Time Warner Cable said in a statement today that it remains "committed to providing its customers the best service possible, including unfettered access to the web content and services of their choice.”

Verizon, which successfully sued to scuttle the neutrality regulations, also promised that today's ruling "will not change consumers' ability to access and use the Internet as they do now.”

The company went on to add that it “has been and remains committed to the open Internet, which provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful Web sites and content when, where and how they want."

But consumer advocates say that promises by ISPs aren't enough. Advocates say the FCC needs to ensure that broadband providers can't block or degrade traffic -- and that the best way to do so is to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications” service. Doing so would allow the FCC to impose the same kind of common carrier rules that have long required telephone carriers to put through all calls.

In order to classify broadband as a telecommunications service, the FCC would have to essentially undo a 2002 decision categorizing high-speed Web access as an “information” service. Information services aren't subject to common carrier requirements -- which is why the court struck down the neutrality rules.

Commentators believe the FCC has the authority to reclassify broadband, and are urging the agency to do so as soon as possible. “The arguments in favor of Internet neutrality are as strong as ever, but prior FCC decisions on how to treat broadband have painted the agency into a corner. Those decisions are not set in stone, however, and "the ball is now back in the FCC's court,” David Sohn, general counsel at the digital rights group Center for Democracy & Technology, said in a statement. “The FCC should reconsider its classification of broadband Internet access and reestablish its authority to enact necessary safeguards for Internet openness.”

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