By Elizabeth Holland
On Tuesday, a federal appeals court struck down the Federal Communication Commission’s (FCC) effort to require broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic equally and give consumers equal access to content, a principle known as net neutrality. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in its ruling the FCC could not apply anti-blocking and nondiscrimination rules to broadband providers, as it did in its 2011 Open Internet Order. The ruling means that companies could block or slow down any website, application, or service, as well as create a tiered pricing structure for Internet access. The decision threatens law libraries’ ability to provide users with a consistent, uncensored, and reliable way of accessing online legal information.
While the decision is a real loss for Internet users in the United States, the ruling strongly suggests that Internet access services and neutrality rules are well within the FCC’s purview; the agency’s legal problems stem from the decision to classify broadband Internet as an “information service,” rather than “telecommunications service.” In his recent remarks in Silicon Valley, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler expressed strong support for Internet neutrality and reaffirmed his commitment to the open internet in a statement responding to yesterday’s ruling. The FCC will “consider all available options, including those for appeal, to ensure that these networks on which the Internet depends continue to provide a free and open platform for innovation and expression, and operate in the interest of all Americans.” Should the FCC reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, net neutrality rules would stand on much firmer legal ground.
AALL strongly supports net neutrality, which protects the unique, open nature of the Internet, and promotes innovation, competition, and intellectual freedom. Without net neutrality, libraries may be unable to afford the imposed fees for preferred access, and thus could not provide equal access to the online legal information their users need. Following the D.C. Circuit’s decision, AALL will continue to work to advocate for net neutrality and will lobby policy-makers to take the necessary steps to restore the important principle of an open Internet.