FCC, neutrality and the courts: What's next?

Kate Gerwig
03 May 2010
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the telecom industry it regulates are in a state of flux since the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled this month that FCC authority does not legally extend to regulating ISP traffic management decisions. That's a very broad generalization of what happened in this tangled tale. Something needs to happen, but the plan of action isn't clear yet.
The ruling sounds innocuous enough, but it has kicked up an amazing amount of dust and jumpstarted endless pontificating on other issues, including net neutrality (the principle that data packets on the internet should be moved impartially, without regard to content, destination or source), the national broadband plan, and all manner of things never even mentioned in the 26-page court ruling.
What's going on here? The actual court decision refers specifically to a 2008 FCC ruling that punished Comcast for quietly blocking BitTorrent peer-to-peer traffic on its network, which the commission considered a violation of net neutrality guidelines. Looking at the bigger picture, the FCC reprimand was a blow to net neutrality enthusiasts. Yet though the Appeals Court ruling has curbed the FCC's regulatory authority in one narrow case, no one knows what this will ultimately mean for net neutrality and the FCC's national broadband plan. As it stands, FCC authority to regulate anything concerning broadband might now be in jeopardy. Even so, the FCC is pressing forward, determined to provide broadband and justice for all.
So now what? FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski is downplaying the meaning of the court's ruling, saying it doesn't change the FCC's ability to achieve its ultimate broadband goals. It's true that the concept of net neutrality isn't included in the national broadband plan, but if there were no nagging worries in the back of regulators' and lobbyists' brains, there wouldn't be such a kerfuffle of new organizations suddenly being formed to lobby for one side or the other.


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