The Federal Communications Commission had the right to dump net neutrality rules, according to a new federal court ruling. The decision could pave the way for state net neutrality laws, however, with the court ruling that the FCC can't bar states like California from passing their own.
The ruling is largely a victory for FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Trump administration appointee, who championed a repeal of the Obama-era rules that ensured internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon treat all websites and content equally. Net neutrality was replaced with a new rule called "Restoring Internet Freedom."
The 2015 net neutrality rules had prohibited internet providers from blocking, slowing down or charging internet companies to favor some sites or apps over others. Pai had argued that net neutrality created a disincentive for internet services to invest in their networks, and removing the rule would open the floodgates to corporate investment, ultimately providing faster and more widespread internet access.
Without these rules, phone and cable companies can interfere with internet traffic as long as they disclose it.
Even though the ruling is a victory for the FCC, there are "silver linings" in the decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, wrote Craig Aaron, the CEO of Free Press, an advocacy group that supports net neutrality, on Twitter.
"The court rejected the FCC's claims that it can pre-empt state Net Neutrality laws out of hand. So we can take this fight to the states to protect Internet users," Aaron noted.
Net neutrality has evolved from a technical concept into a politically charged issue, the focus of street and online protests and a campaign issue lobbed against Republicans and the Trump administration.
The FCC has long mulled over how to enforce it. The agency had twice lost in court over net-neutrality standards before a Democrat-led commission in 2015 voted in a regime that made internet service a utility , bringing phone and cable companies under stricter oversight.
The telecom industry sued that step but lost. An appeals court sanctioned the 2015 rules.
After the 2016 election, President Donald Trump appointed a more industry-friendly FCC chairman. Pai repealed the net neutrality rules in 2017, saying they had undermined investment in broadband networks. That meant ISPs could interfere with internet traffic as long as they disclosed it.
But the issue didn't end there. States had come up with their own net neutrality laws, including one in California that was put on hold until the appeals court decision. The FCC argued that states couldn't come up with their own rules that ran counter to the federal policy.