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View from around the nation: All the Internet is created equally

— From The New York Times

With a ruling that high-speed Internet service should be equally accessible to all Americans, a federal appeals court has come down forcefully in favor of competition and consumer protection. The 2-to-1 decision by a three-judge panel prevents cable and phone companies from blocking websites or creating fast and slow lanes for delivering content on the internet.

The decision helps to ensure a level playing field for smaller- and start-up Internet businesses because it precludes larger, established companies like Amazon and Netflix from simply paying broadband companies for faster delivery. Equally important, it ensures reliable service and choice for consumers by acknowledging that the Internet, now a requisite of modern life, is akin to a utility, subject to regulation in the public interest.

The simple yet profound classification of broadband connections as a type of utility was central to winning the case, which was heard in the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and pitted the Federal Communications Commission against trade groups for the broadband companies. The agency had tried twice before to establish rules for competition and consumer protection on the Internet.

The broadband industry successfully challenged both proposals, largely on the ground that it was primarily an information provider, more like a discretionary convenience for consumers than a utility, and thus not subject to FCC authority. The industry’s goal was to kill off net neutrality — the doctrine that cable and phone companies should treat all information equally as it travels over their broadband networks.

In late 2014, the ground under the debate shifted when President Obama called on the commission to treat broadband service providers more like utilities, subject to rules similar to those governing telephone services. At the same time, millions of Americans weighed in on the FCC’s proposed rules, saying much the same thing. In response, the FCC developed the new and stronger regulations that prevailed this week. Gone were earlier proposals to let cable and phone companies offer separate (and unequal) high-quality and low-quality tiers. Gone were proposals to regulate some provider practices while putting others outside the purview of federal regulation.

Even before the ruling, cable and phone companies had vowed to challenge any unfavorable outcome, possibly by taking the case to the Supreme Court. The industry is also virtually certain to ask Congress to pass legislation to revoke or water down the FCC’s regulations.

It is hard to imagine lawmakers taking a stand to make the Internet less accessible. It is unknown whether the Supreme Court would hear an appeal. The ruling is a step forward for the Internet and its users, and deserves to stand.

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