The Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) on Monday refused to review a 2016 case brought by various broadband service providers challenging Federal Communications Commission (FCC) net neutrality protections from the Obama era.
The FCC was issued by the Obama administration in 2015 to protect principles of net neutrality, which require that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally. It prohibited broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic and banned them from offering so-called fast lanes to companies willing to pay extra to reach consumers more quickly than competitors.
Before the US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit, various telecommunications companies, as well as independent providers, had essentially asserted that they operated more similarly to broadcast networks and should be allowed editorial discretion over the content they provide.
The judgment had, however, rejected such contentions, ruling, “Because a broadband provider does not—and is not understood by users to—'speak' when providing neutral access to Internet content as common carriage, the First Amendment poses no bar to the open Internet rules.”
In addition to enforcing net neutrality rules against blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, the decision had also allowed FCC to continue regulating fixed and mobile broadband providers under the common carrier provisions in Title II of the Communications Act.
While the FCC was later reversed by President Trump's pick for FCC chairman, Ajit Pai by issuing the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, AT&T and broadband industry lobby groups were still trying to overturn court decisions that upheld the FCC order. Their win would have prevented future administrations from imposing a similarly strict set of rules.
Trump, in fact, supported the industry's case, asking the US Supreme Court to vacate the ruling. Lawyers for the FCC and Department of Justice (DOJ) had filed a brief in June this year (after the change of administration) with the Supreme Court, supporting the broadband industry's case.
The DOJ and the FCC had also noted that the case "appears to be moot" because of Pai's repeal of the net neutrality rules and that the future of net neutrality will be decided in a new case in which dozens of litigants sued Pai's FCC to reverse the repeal. However, instead of letting the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruling stand, the DOJ and FCC had argued that it shouldn't act as a precedent during the current litigation over Pai's repeal.
SCOTUS was now divided on the appeals, with Justices Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch arguing to grant certiorari and vacate the decision of the DC Circuit as it had been made moot by the FCC repeal. While Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kavanaugh took no part in the proceedings, the majority ultimately voted to deny certioari.