A blow was struck to equal access to the Internet by a federal appeals court this week. Equal access in Internet-speak is called “net neutrality.” The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the Federal Communications Commission lacked specific legal authority to regulate important Internet activity. In doing so, it made a pro-big business and anti-consumer decision.
The case involved an FCC ruling against Comcast, which had interfered with its customers file sharing usage. Comcast at first denied the charge but later admitted to slowing down and blocking consumer’s use of bit torrent files.
Comcast later sued the FCC resulting in the appeal’s court decision.
According to Austin Schlick, general counsel of the FCC, the court decision is important because it “undermines the legal approach the FCC adopted in 2005 to fulfill its statutory duty of being the cop-on-the-beat for 21st century communications networks.”
Schlick says threatened by the ruling are the Obama administration’s plans for providing equal access and “recommendations aimed at accelerating broadband access and adoption in rural America; connecting low-income Americans, Native American communities, and Americans with disabilities” among other things.
The decision puts the administration’s broadband proposals in jeopardy by annulling the legal means to fund it.
In addition, the ruling has broader implications including the creation of a fast-lane for those able to pay more money for faster and easier access. This would assist those with large and well established audiences and discriminate against small emerging organizations and companies.
The ruling has broad political implications as well. Colorofchange.org charges that Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are attempting to act as gatekeepers with the possibility of blocking content.
In a letter, Colorof change.org leader James Rucker says if successful, their goal is to make the Internet “be more like radio and television: a few major corporations would control which voices are heard most easily, and it would be much harder for grassroots groups, individuals, and small businesses to compete with large corporations and well-funded special interests.”
Campaigns, like the movement to free the Jena Six and even the movement to elect President Obama, would be much harder to achieve, he says. They are urging a message of support be sent to the FCC.
Colorofchange.org says business groups like U.S. Industry Internet Association, are attempting to use concerns about job loss and access to convince some civil rights groups to oppose net neutrality.
The FCC must now find new statutory authority under existing law or Congress must vote it new authority. Several bills on net neutrality have languished in congressional committees.
Photo: Mother and daughter explore the computer at a California library. San Jose Library/CC