Net Neutrality Repeal is Mostly Upheld

By Jon Brodkin, Oct 1, 2019 | Original Ars Technica article here.

. . . but the DC Circuit Court Rejects FCC Attempt to Block State Laws

A federal appeals court today upheld in this ruling that the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules but said the FCC cannot preempt all state net neutrality laws.

The judges’ ruling said:

"We uphold the 2018 Order, with two exceptions. First, the Court concludes that the Commission has not shown legal authority to issue its Preemption Directive, which would have barred states from imposing any rule or requirement that the Commission ‘repealed or decided to refrain from imposing’ in the Order or that is ‘more stringent’ than the Order."

The judges wrote that the FCC "ignored binding precedent" when making its preemption order, and "that failure is fatal" to the preemption. The judges then ruled that the FCC can’t preempt all state net neutrality laws in one fell swoop, but the ruling does not prevent the FCC from trying to preempt state laws on a case-by-case basis. Each preemption of a state law must involve "fact-intensive inquiries," so the FCC would have to conduct a preemption analysis of each one.

The judges wrote:

"Without the facts of any alleged conflict [between state and federal rules] before us, we cannot begin to make a conflict-preemption assessment in this case, let alone a categorical determination that any and all forms of state regulation of intrastate broadband would inevitably conflict with the 2018 Order,"

This is a win for California and other states that passed their own net neutrality laws after the FCC repeal. California agreed to delay enforcement of its net neutrality law until after litigation is fully resolved, so the state likely won’t enforce the law just yet.

After the appeals in this case are exhausted, we could see California and other states enforcing net neutrality rules that prohibit Internet service providers from

  • Blocking or throttling lawful Internet traffic and
  • Prioritizing traffic in exchange for payment.

In today’s ruling, judges remanded portions of the repeal order back to the FCC, saying that the agency has to do more justification of the net neutrality repeal. Importantly, however, the judges remanded the repeal to the FCC without vacating it and said that the FCC’s opponents’ objections are "unconvincing for the most part." While the judges vacated the FCC’s preemption of state laws, the FCC decision to deregulate broadband at the federal level and eliminate net neutrality rules remains in effect.

Today’s decision could be appealed to the full Court of Appeals and eventually to the Supreme Court

The decision was made with a 2-1 vote by a three-judge panel at the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. All three judges agreed that the FCC can repeal its own net neutrality rules, but Senior Circuit Judge Stephen Williams dissented from the decision to vacate the preemption of state laws.

Pai issued a statement celebrating today’s DC Circuit order:

"The court affirmed the FCC’s decision to repeal 1930s utility-style regulation of the Internet imposed by the prior Administration. . . . We look forward to addressing on remand the narrow issues that the court identified."

Pai’s statement did not address the court ruling against the preemption of state laws.

On remand, the FCC must address three problems with the net neutrality repeal. The judges wrote that :

  1. The FCC "failed to examine the implications of its decisions for public safety" and
  2. The FCC failed to "sufficiently explain what reclassification will mean for regulation of pole attachments."
  3. The FCC did not address opponents’ concerns about the effect deregulation will have on the FCC’s Lifeline program that subsidizes phone and Internet access for low-income Americans.

The judges did not dispute the FCC’s decision to classify broadband as an information service instead of a telecommunications service. Classifying broadband as an information service essentially deregulated the industry and helped the FCC repeal the core net neutrality rules. Judges said that the FCC decision to reclassify broadband was "a reasonable policy choice."

Pai’s FCC voted to reclassify broadband and eliminate net neutrality rules in December 2017, leading to the rules coming off the books in June 2018. The FCC repeal was challenged in court by a coalition of state attorneys general, consumer advocacy groups, and tech companies such as Mozilla and Vimeo. Oral arguments were held in February 2019.

Mozilla said it may appeal today’s ruling.

Mozilla Chief Legal Officer Amy Keating said in a statement.

"Our fight to preserve net neutrality as a fundamental digital right is far from over. We are encouraged to see the Court free states to enact net neutrality rules that protect consumers. We are considering our next steps in the litigation around the FCC’s 2018 Order, and are grateful to be a part of a broad community pressing for net neutrality protections in courts, states and in Congress".

Statement Of Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel On D.C. Circuit’s Net Neutrality Decision

Washington,, October 1, 2019:

“When the FCC rolled back net neutrality it was on the wrong side of the American people and the wrong side of history. Today’s court decision shows that the agency also got it wrong on the law. The agency made a mess when it gave broadband providers the power to block websites, throttle services, and censor online content.

Today’s court decision vacates the FCC’s unlawful effort to block states and localities from protecting an open internet for their citizens. From small towns to big cities, from state houses to governors’ executive actions, states and localities have been stepping in because the FCC shirked its duties. In addition, the court took the agency to task for disregarding its duty to consider how its decision threatens public safety, Lifeline service, and broadband infrastructure.

As the FCC revisits its policies in light of the court’s directives, I hope it has the courage to run an open and fair process. The momentum around the country is proof the American people are not done fighting for an open internet. I’m proud to stand with them in that fight.”