Court Rules Against FCC in ‘Net Neutrality’ Case

BY jbreslow  April 6, 2010 at 2:18 PM EDT

A federal appeals court on Tuesday ruled that the Federal Communication Commission overstepped its authority in 2008 when it sanctioned Comcast for slowing down some customers’ Internet access, effectively reining in the agency’s push for so-called net neutrality.

In a 3-0 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC lacks the authority to require Comcast — or any other Internet service provider — to treat all Web traffic equally on its network.

The case stemmed from Comcast’s move to slow down Web access for some customers who were downloading large files using the peer-to-peer file-sharing service BitTorrent. The FCC shot back by ordering Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, to halt what it described as discrimination towards some of its customers.

While the agency has made equal treatment for all Web users a key policy goal, the court concluded Congress has yet to grant the FCC “untrammeled freedom” to regulate broadband.

“Today’s court decision invalidated the prior commission’s approach to preserving an open internet,” the FCC said in a statement. “But the court in no way disagreed with the importance of preserving a free and open internet. Nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end.”

The setback for the FCC comes at a time when the agency is embarking on a wide-ranging plan to deliver faster broadband across the U.S. As the Associated Press notes:

“The FCC needs clear authority to regulate broadband in order to push ahead with some its key recommendations, including a proposal to expand broadband by tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor and rural communities.”

The ruling may not mark the end of net neutrality, yet according to The Big Money, “The decision possibly opens up the Internet to a new regime in which providers could deny Internet users access to Web sites, or charge an extra fee to access heavily trafficked sites such as Google or its video hosting site.”