The legal conflict over net neutrality has been the topic of much popular debate since 2010, and, with the latest court decision, some are concerned the existence of a free and open Internet may have come to an end.
On Jan. 14, 2014, in the ongoing dispute between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Verizon, the U.S. Court of Appeals struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules, which it established in late 2010 to ensure equal and fair accessibility to all lawful websites on the Internet. More specifically, net neutrality ensures Internet service providers (ISPs) cannot sell priority traffic rights or charge premiums for high-bandwidth websites, such as Netflix and YouTube.
Without FCC regulation, ISPs are free to govern access to websites as they please. Net neutrality supporters are concerned about the potential for ISPs to charge websites for faster access to their content. Conceivably, ISPs would even be free to slow down or block access to sites altogether.
Verizon’s general counsel and executive vice president for public policy, Randal Milch, addressed those concerns, saying that, despite the ruling, nothing would change.
“Verizon has been and remains committed to the open Internet, which provides consumers with competitive choices and unblocked access to lawful websites and content when, where and how they want. This will not change in light of the court’s decision,” Milch said.
On the other end, the Internet Association—which represents such behemoths as Netflix Inc. and Google Inc.—indicated its membership may face new challenges to growth.
“The Internet Association supports enforceable rules that ensure an open Internet, free from government control or discriminatory, anticompetitive actions by gatekeepers,” said Michael Beckerman, the Internet Association’s president and CEO.
The court justified its decision by stating consumers have a choice in which ISP they use, citing the recent entry of Google as an ISP in three cities across the country.
“But there is no evidence in the record suggesting that broadband providers are carving up territory or avoiding head-to-head competition,” the court writes. “At least anecdotally, the opposite seems to be true. Google has now entered the broadband market as a direct competitor.”
Despite the court’s stance, U.S. Internet customers pay more for lower quality Internet service compared to other developed countries. Lack of competition is often cited as a reason for lagging U.S. infrastructure advancement, a development that electrical and low-voltage contractors could benefit from.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated the agency considered the court ruling a setback but not a defeat. Wheeler said the FCC would continue to work for a free and open Internet.
But that effort may prove to be exceedingly difficult, since the court ruled that the FCC does not have jurisdiction in the matter.