WASHINGTON — A federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld the government's "net neutrality" rules, preserving regulations that force internet providers such as Comcast and AT&T to treat all online traffic — everything from Netflix and cat videos to games and downloads — equally.
The 2-1 ruling is a sweeping victory for the Obama administration and the consumer groups and internet companies that have pushed net neutrality for years. The Federal Communications Commission's rules block internet service providers from favoring their own services and disadvantaging others; blocking other sites and apps; and creating "fast lanes" for video and other data services that pay for the privilege.
On technical grounds, the ruling upholds the FCC's authority to regulate broadband service as a utility, much like phone service, and to forbid what it considers unreasonable practices. It applies equally to wired broadband providers like cable companies and mobile ones such as Verizon.
Tougher regulations possible
The net neutrality rules have been in effect since June, and the court's decision isn't going to change how the internet works tomorrow. But the FCC has already been taking some steps that would change how broadband providers act. The ruling could pave the way for tougher restrictions on cable and phone companies that affect what services they offer, which consumer data they can use and how, and what they can charge.
The providers who filed the lawsuit say they'll appeal.
"This decision is huge for the FCC's authority," said Marvin Ammori, a longtime net-neutrality advocate. "We won big on everything." That sets the stage for what Ammori and several analysts see as the next big battle. That will likely involve "zero rating" — the practice of exempting preferred video services from customer data caps.
Comcast, for example, lets you can watch video at home with its Stream service with no danger of bumping against your data cap (if you have one). T-Mobile's Binge On program lets you watch any video you want from Netflix and many other providers without counting it as data use. Net-neutrality advocates say these types of practices are unfair and tilt the market toward certain favored providers.
Other consequences are more difficult to gauge. Christopher Yoo, a professor of law, engineering and communications at the University of Pennsylvania, said the ruling could mean higher prices for some services, while providers might drop others altogether.
The long slog
"I think everyone has to be shocked at the magnitude of the FCC victory," said MoffettNathanson analyst Craig Moffett. But it was a long time coming.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit had previously struck down similar rules from the FCC twice. At the time the FCC based them on a different claim of legal authority.