Industry group sues over Web rules

A major industry organization is suing federal regulators over their tough new net neutrality rules.

The U.S. Telecom Association, which represents major industry players such as AT&T and Verizon, is filing a suit against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, claiming that the Web regulations are “arbitrary, capricious” and violate the law.

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The FCC has expected a lawsuit since last year, when it began writing new regulations to replace previous rules dating from 2010 that were tossed out by the D.C. Circuit last year.

The legal filings begin the next chapter in the long fight over rules for people’s access to the Internet, though it’s unclear whether or not they will be immediately accepted by the court.

Lawyers on all sides were unclear whether or not Monday was the first available time to file a lawsuit. In its suit, USTelecom said it was filing “out of an abundance of caution.”

For critics of the regulations, the likely years-long courtroom battle is the best chance to stop the rules in their tracks.

It’s “the beginning of the next stage,” said one telecom industry lawyer with an organization that is eyeing a separate lawsuit.

According to The Washington Post, Texas-based Web provider Alamo Broadband is also suing the FCC in New Orleans. 

The groups are challenging the bold decision by the FCC to legally reclassify broadband Internet service to treat it as a public utility, which is a break from more than a decade of precedent at the agency. Net neutrality advocates say that imposing utility-style regulations is the only way to fully protect people surfing the Internet and prevent Web providers such as Comcast or Verizon from interfering with their access to the Internet.

“The focus of our legal appeal will be on the FCC's decision to reclassify broadband Internet access service as a public utility service after a decade of amazing innovation and investment under the FCC's previous light-touch approach,” group senior vice president Jon Banks said in a statement.

Top FCC officials have made clear that their regulations were built to withstand the inevitable legal challenge.

“The big dogs are going to sue regardless of what comes out,” agency Chairman Tom Wheeler said last year. “We need to make sure we have sustainable rules.” 

Republicans have also objected to the FCC’s regulations, which they see as a bureaucratic overreach by an unelected federal agency.

In response, some key GOP lawmakers have begun a parallel process to replace the regulations with legislation to enshrine some net neutrality protections in law but limit the FCC in other ways. Democrats have yet to endorse that effort, though that could change if the regulations appear especially vulnerable to a court challenge. 

If a court passes on Monday’s suit, another one is surely in the works at the first moment the law allows

“We’re going to make sure that we file suit on the first opportunity and every opportunity to challenge the rules,” said the lawyer whose organization has been considering a suit.

It could be years until the issue is resolved.

Verizon challenged the FCC’s 2010 rules in January 2011. It took three full years for a conclusion to be reached.

If the current challenge proceeds on a similar schedule, a new president will have taken office by the time the issue is fully settled.