Federal court deals major blow to 'net neutrality'

Reporters take notes during a panel discussion at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 19, 2012.
Reporters take notes during a panel discussion at the U.S. Capitol, Jan. 19, 2012.

A federal appeals court on Tuesday struck down Federal Communications Commission regulations meant to enforce "net neutrality," opening the door for major telecom corporations to restrict their customers' access to certain websites and introduce new kinds of tiered pricing models for Internet access.

The FCC's Open Internet Order was intended to restrict telecom companies from blocking Internet traffic to certain websites, or charging more for the same broadband speed depending on which websites their customers visited. The three judges who presided over the case ruled that such regulations did not allow companies enough freedom to set their own pricing models and run their own networks.

Craig Aaron, president and CEO of the pro-net neutrality advocacy group Free Press, expressed disappointment in the ruling.

"Its ruling means that Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies—and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will," he said in a statement.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has said that the agency will appeal the ruling to the Supreme Court.

"I am committed to maintaining our networks as engines for economic growth, test beds for innovative services and products, and channels for all forms of speech protected by the First Amendment," he said in a statement. "We 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.” 

Besides appeal, another option for the FCC may be to write different net neutrality regulations that don't run afoul of the appeals court ruling. California Democratic Rep. Henry Waxman told reporters on Tuesday that he "look[ed] forward to working with the FCC to revise the rules on the books that protect the free and open Internet."