Net neutrality battle heats up in US courts

Written by David Adams

We should all be keeping an eye on a very important developing story in the US: the legal clash about to take place in the US courts about net neutrality. In December, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to allow ISPs to speed up or slow down data related to different companies and to set different levels of charges for consumers with differing levels of access to faster data – provided the ISPs disclose this publicly.

Aside from the techie community opposing this undermining of one of the democratising principles of the internet, the legal challenge to the rule change is being led by representatives of several US states, including New York, California, New Jersey, Vermont, Montana and Hawaii.

Last week Vermont state governor Phil Scott signed an executive order commanding state agencies to work only with ISPs that do not accord some internet traffic a higher priority. The executive order ended with the standard caveat that nothing within it should supersede any federal law – but assuming that the FCC’s rule change survives the current legal challenge, this assertion and others like it will be questioned in the courts over the months and years ahead. Legislators in California are seeking to go further and attempt to force ISPs operating within the state to maintain net neutrality.

In the meantime, Congress could overturn the FCC order, but only with the support of a majority in the House of Representatives. That seems unlikely, as the Republicans currently control the House. A move to repeal is easier to imagine in the Senate, where the Republican’s majority is tiny.

If the legal battle to stop the change fails, net neutrality in the US will end on April 23. There are arguments for and against the change, but it is difficult to deny the suggestion that it would start to make life a little bit easier for the technology giants – who seem to be doing reasonably well already – and more difficult for smaller organisations trying to operate online.