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FCC has teeth pulled in net neutrality debate

Service providers should be free to favour traffic from one content provider over another as long as they keep users informed, Vaizey said

The ongoing dispute over net neutrality was dealt a serious blow this week as a US federal court ruled that the FCC does not have the authority to force all service providers to treat internet traffic the same.

The case, which was decided this week, had been running since 2007, when US communications watchdog, the FCC, took cable network operator Comcast to task for interfering with its customers’ use of peer to peer networking technologies.

Comcast complained to the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, arguing that the FCC failed, “to justify exercising jurisdiction over its network management practices.” That argument was this week upheld by the court, meaning that the FCC cannot force a service provider to treat all traffic travelling over its network with equal weighting.

The main concern here is that such a ruling paves the way for operators to charge a premium to carry services, or relegate them to the ‘slow lane’ of the internet. In reality however, it probably means that the net neutrality debate will continue to rumble on down other avenues.

The FCC will fight back to get its way, as it noted in a statement in response to the ruling: “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.”

It’s also worth bearing in mind that the US regulatory regime is quite different to rest of world and net neutrality is more contentious in US because there is less competition for broadband. Most consumers only have a choice of two providers – a national provider and a regional competitor, so the FCC is under more pressure to act on such issues.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps added a bit of drama to the situation by calling the decision, “Not just a blow to the FCC—it’s a blow to all Americans who rely on an open Internet that serves all comers without discrimination…The only way the Commission can make lemonade out of this lemon of a decision is to do now what should have been done years ago: treat broadband as the telecommunications service that it is.”


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