A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the Federal Communication Commission's "net neutrality" rules in a big final-year win for the Obama administration.
In the 2-1 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, the court denied petitions from a number of internet service providers and trade groups to strike down the strongest internet service regulations ever written.
The regulations classify internet service providers as common carriers, which critics equate with utility regulations. The rules give the FCC increased authority to require internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally.
The decision is a major win for the FCC and the millions of open internet advocates who pressured the agency to adopt the strong rules that regulate the conduct of companies that provide internet service.
“Today’s ruling is a victory for consumers and innovators who deserve unfettered access to the entire web, and it ensures the internet remains a platform for unparalleled innovation, free expression and economic growth,” FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a statement.
Since the rules were passed last year, Republicans and telecom companies have launched a number of challenges to the rules.
But in the end, the court concluded that the FCC had the authority to change the classification of internet service providers because the underlying law gives the agency room to decide and that a previous court case provided a roadmap to make the change.
“This, in our view, represents a perfectly 'good reason' for the Commission’s change in position,” wrote judges David Tatel and Sri Srinivasan.
Judge Stephen Williams dissented.
In a divided vote last year, the FCC approved regulations that reclassified internet service as a common carrier so that the agency could have more authority to require internet service providers — such as Comcast, AT&T or Verizon — to treat all web traffic equally.
They were some of the most sweeping rules ever written to police the conduct of companies that provide internet service to customers.
The courts had struck down two previous attempts at net neutrality rules in years past. Tatel wrote the opinion in 2014 striking down the last set of rules, arguing that the FCC treated internet service as a common carrier but did not classify it as such.
The FCC saw that decision as a signal to bolster its authority the next time around.
The broad rules regulate companies that provide both home and mobile internet service, preventing them from blocking, slowing or creating fast lanes for websites or apps willing to pay extra. The rules were branded as protections for customers and web companies.
But critics, including Republicans and the providers who sued, called them outdated utility-style regulations.
“After a decade of debate and legal battles, today’s ruling affirms the Commission’s ability to enforce the strongest possible internet protections — both on fixed and mobile networks — that will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future,” Wheeler said.
The court denied all of the arguments put forward by critics of the rules. They had challenged the FCC’s authority to reclassify internet service and said its decision to do so was “arbitrary and capricious.”
The court also turned down arguments that the rules should not apply to mobile internet service and that some of the rules violate the First Amendment.
“For the reasons set forth in this opinion, we deny the petitions for review,” according to the opinion.
The companies that brought the lawsuit vowed to continue their fight to the Supreme Court.
“We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal,” AT&T general counsel David McAtee said in a statement.
Others said they would continue to push lawmakers to act. It is unclear how the ruling will affect the debate in Congress. Republicans, who are almost universally against the rules, have pushed a number of proposals throughout the past year to pare back the rules. They have received little movement, but the ruling could reinvigorate the debate.
Updated at 10:58 a.m.