Supreme Court Rejects Telecom Industry Challenge of 2015 Net Neutrality Rules

But Lawsuits over Pai’s Net Neutrality Repeal and California Law will Continue.

By Jon Brodkin, Nov 15, 2018 | Original ARS Technica article here.

The US Supreme Court has declined to hear the broadband industry’s challenge of Obama-era net neutrality rules. The Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 order to impose net neutrality rules and strictly regulate broadband was already reversed by Trump’s pick for FCC chairman, Ajit Pai. But AT&T and broadband industry lobby groups were still trying to overturn court decisions that upheld the FCC order.

A win for the broadband industry could have prevented future administrations from imposing a similarly strict set of rules. The Trump administration supported the industry’s case, asking the US Supreme Court to vacate the Obama-era ruling. But the Supreme Court today said it has denied petitions filed by AT&T and broadband lobby groups NCTA, CTIA, USTelecom, and the American Cable Association. Four of nine justices must agree to hear a case, but only three voted to grant the petitions.

Chief Justices Roberts and Kavanaugh Recused Themselves From the Case

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Brett Kavanaugh recused themselves from the case. Roberts owned stock in AT&T-owned Time Warner, while Kavanaugh took part in the case when he was a judge on the DC Circuit appeals court, Bloomberg Supreme Court Reporter Greg Stohr noted. Kavanaugh dissented from the ruling upholding net neutrality rules in 2017, arguing that the rules violate the First Amendment rights of Internet service providers by preventing them from "exercising editorial control" over Internet content.

According to the Supreme Court announcement today, Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Neil Gorsuch "would grant the petitions, vacate the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [which upheld the FCC’s net neutrality order], and remand to that court with instructions to dismiss the cases as moot."

The legal battle over net neutrality will continue and could potentially reach the Supreme Court again in a separate case.

The FCC is defending its net neutrality repeal against a lawsuit filed by dozens of litigants, including 22 state attorneys general, consumer advocacy groups, and tech companies.

  • Link to Mozilla Corp.
  • Link to Vimeo, Inc.
  • Link to Public Knowledge
  • Link to Open Technology Institute
  • Link to New York Attorney General, along with Democratic attorneys general from 21 other states and the District of Columbia
  • Link to National Hispanic Media Coalition
  • Link to Benton Foundation
  • Link to Free Press
  • Link to Coalition for Internet Openness, representing tech companies Automattic, Foursquare Labs, Etsy, Expa, Kickstarter, and Shutterstock
  • Link to Etsy (filing by itself)
  • Link to California Public Utilities Commission
  • Link to County of Santa Clara, California

In a related case, California’s decision to impose state-level net neutrality rules is being challenged by the broadband industry and Trump administration.

John Bergmayer, senior counsel of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge:

"Much of the current FCC’s argument [against net neutrality] depends on ignoring or contradicting the DC Circuit’s earlier findings, but now that these are firmly established as binding law, the Pai FCC’s case is on even weaker ground than before."

Today’s Supreme Court decision is good news for supporters of net neutrality because it means that the DC Circuit court’s previous decision upholding both the FCC’s classification of broadband as a telecommunications service, and its rules prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or degrading Internet content, remains in place.