Supreme Court Ruling Threatens FCC's Net Neutrality Rules

The Supreme Court on Friday issued an opinion that poses a threat to a broad array of federal regulations, including the Federal Communications Commission's recently passed net neutrality rules.

The 6-3 decision, authored by Chief Justice John Roberts, overturned a 40-year-old precedent that broadly required judges to defer to federal agencies' reasonable interpretations of ambiguous statutes.

That principle, known as “Chevron deference,” conflicts with the federal Administrative Procedures Act (which governs federal agencies' rulemaking procedures), according to Roberts.

“Chevron is overruled,” he wrote. “Courts must exercise their independent judgment in deciding whether an agency has acted within its statutory authority.

The ruling will affect regulations on matters as diverse as food safety, labor, the environment and broadband access.

“From this day forward, no consumer protection is safe,” Harold Feld, senior vice president at the watchdog Public Knowledge stated Friday.

“Even if Congress can write with such specificity that a court cannot dispute its plain meaning, Congress will need to change the law for every new technology and every change in business practice,” he added.

Broadband organizations that are suing over net neutrality regulations will almost certainly argue that Friday's decision weighs heavily against the new rules. Those regulations -- first passed during the Obama administration, repealed during the Trump era, and then passed again this year -- reclassified broadband as a telecommunications service and imposed bans on blocking or throttling content, and charging higher fees for prioritized delivery.

In the past, the Supreme Court relied on Chevron deference to uphold a Republican-led FCC's decision to classify broadband as an “information” service; that categorization  meant broadband carriers didn't have to follow the same common carrier rules that prohibit telephone companies from blocking calls based on content.

The FCC's decision was challenged in court, and in 2005 the Supreme Court upheld the agency's move by a 6-3 vote.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote for the majority that the decision in Chevron “requires a federal court to accept the agency’s construction of the statute, even if the agency’s reading differs from what the court believes is the best statutory interpretation.”

Justice Antonin Scalia authored a dissent in that case, writing that the FCC's interpretation of the Telecommunications Act was “implausible.”

Now that the Supreme Court has scrapped Chevron, judges who are tasked with deciding the validity of the net neutrality rules won't be able to defer to the agency's expertise. While the FCC could still ultimately convince judges to uphold those rules, doing so could prove more difficult without Chevron.

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