[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Tuesday that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [official website] lacks authority to require broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic equally. The appeal was brought by cable giant Comcast [official website] to review whether the FCC has the authority to enforce its newly-developed "net neutrality" [backgrounder; JURIST news archive] regulations. The concept of net neutrality, supported unanimously by the FCC commissioners, is to allow for the open flow of information over the Internet, regardless of the amount of revenue generated by the information. The present case stems from an FCC sanction on Comcast for blocking customers' access to peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing, which allows Internet users to share large files directly, potentially using a lot of bandwidth. The commission ruled that Comcast had "significantly impeded consumers' ability to access the content and use the applications of their choice." Comcast argued that its method of traffic flow management was used to prevent the degradation of Internet quality for its customers as a whole. The appeals agreed with Comcast, holding that the FCC failed to show that it had the authority to impose "net neutrality" restrictions on broadband providers:
[The FCC] relies principally on several congressional statements of policy, but under Supreme Court and D.C. Circuit case law statements of policy, by themselves, do not create 'statutorily mandated responsibilities. … The commission also relies on various provisions of the Communications Act that do create such responsibilities, but for a variety of substantive and procedural reasons those provisions cannot support its exercise of ancillary authority over Comcast's network management practices.
The FCC responded [press release, PDF] that it "is firmly committed to promoting an open Internet and to policies that will bring the enormous benefits of broadband to all Americans."
The ruling could be a major setback for the FCC, which released a major broadband expansion plan [JURIST report] last month. The FCC's National Broadband Plan [materials] was sent to Congress for approval and seeks to enact regulations to update the communications infrastructure in the US and to make broadband service available to millions of Americans. The plan is mandated by provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) [materials]. Notable goals of the plan include providing 100 million households with affordable 100-megabits-per-second Internet service, making 500 megahertz of wireless spectrum available for licensed and unlicensed use by mobile applications, and ensuring that all children are literate in digital technology by the time they leave high school.