The federal court ruled the U.S. Federal Communications Commission's ability to regulate Internet service providers did not have the same legal basis that gives it the right to regulate "common carriers" such as phone companies.
The FCC has classified Internet service providers as "information services," historically more loosely regulated than telecom services, but said they must abide by the "net neutrality" concept -- the principle that Internet service providers should provide access to all websites and content regardless of the source, and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.
The court struck down the legal framework under which the FCC pushed net neutrality, meaning ISPs could be free to start offering "tiered" Internet access, much like cable and satellite companies do with programming content.
Everyone accepts that "basic cable" is cheap because you get just the basic channels. No HBO, no Showtime, no "every NFL game every weekend" package.
But in contrast, everyone has also accepted -- up to now -- that Internet access, at whatever monthly rate is paid, brought the entire Internet. No restrictions, no "tiered" access for more popular sites. Whether it was Amazon.com or MoesGoldfishFoodOnline.com, both sites were accessible and popped up in a browser at the same speed.
The court's ruling means ISPs such as Verizon -- which brought the suit against the FCC -- could approach some of the bigger, more popular online companies and offer to let them allow customers to access their sites more quickly -- for a fee. Amazon.com would be fast; goldfish fanciers could find themselves staring at a slowly-moving progress bar in attempting to buy from Moe.
Proponents of net neutrality have criticized the court's ruling, saying allowing Internet giants to pay more for better user access will crowd out start-ups and stifle innovation, the driving forces behind much of the Internet's growth and utility.
Writing in the New Yorker, Columbia Law School Professor Tim Wu called the net neutrality concept "the Magna Carta of the Web; today, there's not a tech firm or a blog that doesn't owe something to the open, unblocked Internet."
Major ISPs including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and others have been quick to respond with statements that the Internet will not fundamentally change, and that the ruling will simply bring "more innovation" and "choices" for consumers.
Choice can be good, unless it becomes a choice for a consumer between "basic" Internet and "tiered" Internet.
The day may come when an ISP says: "You would like to stream Netflix? That will be an additional $10 a month, please."
None of this will happen in a hurry, of course -- and might not at all.
The battle over net neutrality is far from over; the ball is back in the FCC's court, and it is no doubt busy planning its next moves.
Those could include an appeal to the Supreme Court, and attempt to reclassify ISPs as telecom services or some other workarounds to enforce open access.
Time will tell, and in the meantime the unfolding battle will available for all to follow on the Internet -- for now.
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