Flurry of Lawsuits Fight Repeal of Net Neutrality
Posted January 16, 2018 8:15 p.m. EST
Updated January 16, 2018 8:19 p.m. EST
WASHINGTON — The legal fight against the Federal Communications Commission’s recent repeal of so-called net neutrality regulations began on Tuesday, with a flurry of lawsuits filed to block the agency’s action.
One suit, filed by 21 state attorneys general, said the agency’s actions broke federal law. The commission’s rollback of net neutrality rules were “arbitrary and capricious,” the attorneys general said, and a reversal of the agency’s long-standing policy to prevent internet service providers from blocking or charging websites for faster delivery of content to consumers.
Mozilla, the nonprofit organization behind the Firefox web browser, said the new FCC rules would harm internet entrepreneurs who could be forced to pay fees for faster delivery of their content and services to consumers. A similar argument was made by another group that filed a suit, the Open Technology Institute, a part of a liberal think tank, the New America Foundation.
Suits were also filed on Tuesday by Free Press and Public Knowledge, two public interest groups. Four of the suits were filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The Free Press suit was filed in the 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“The repeal of net neutrality would turn internet service providers into gatekeepers — allowing them to put profits over consumers while controlling what we see, what we do, and what we say online,” said Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman of New York, who led the suit by the state officials.
The lawsuits have long been expected. The filings on Tuesday, petitions to begin the suits, kick off what is expected to be an extended legal and political debate about the future of internet policy.
Democrats have rallied to fight the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality, which was passed in a 3-2 party line vote in December. The agency is led by Ajit Pai, a Republican nominated by President Donald Trump. All of the attorneys general involved in the suit filed on Tuesday are Democrats.
The lawsuits have the support of the Internet Association, a trade group representing big tech firms including Google and Netflix, giving the various legal challenges financial support and the clout of companies. The companies say internet service providers have the incentive to block and throttle their sites in order to garner extra fees.
The FCC declined to comment on the suits. But it did point to a part of its order that prohibits legal challenges until the new rules are submitted into the federal registry. The FCC is expected to enter the new rules into the federal registry in the coming days or weeks.
The states said they could file a petition to the U.S. Court of Appeals, starting the process to determine which court would hear the case. That is the action the attorneys general, as well as Mozilla and the Open Technology Institute, took on Tuesday.
The states that signed onto the lawsuit include California, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts and Oregon, as well as the District of Columbia. Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, said the decision to roll back the agency’s declaration of broadband as a utilitylike service will harm consumers.
“Internet access is a utility — just like water and electricity,” Becerra said in a statement. “And every consumer has a right to access online content without interference or manipulation by their internet service provider.”
In a release, Schneiderman said the agency’s roll back disregarded a record of evidence that internet service providers’ could harm consumers without rules. A similar argument was made by Mozilla.
“Ending net neutrality could end the internet as we know it,” said Denelle Dixon, Mozilla’s chief business and legal officer in a blog post. “That’s why we are committed to fighting the order. In particular, we filed our petition today because we believe the recent FCC decision violates both federal law as well as harms internet users and innovators.”
The issue of net neutrality has been fought in court challenges twice before in the past decade. The rules adopted in 2015, which set rules that sites could not be blocked or throttled, were upheld by a federal appeals court in 2016 after legal challenges by telecom companies. The FCC vote in December was to roll back those 2015 rules.
The new lawsuits are among several efforts to restore net neutrality rules. On Tuesday, Senate Democrats announced they were one supporter away from winning a vote to restore net neutrality rules. All 49 members of their caucus, as well as one Republican, have signed on to a resolution to overturn the rules. A similar effort initiated in the House has the support of 80 members.
Success by members of Congress is unlikely, particularly in the House, where Speaker Paul Ryan, R-Wis., would have to agree to bring the resolution to a vote. The president will also have to agree to the resolutions, if they were passed, but the White House has expressed its support of the rollback of net neutrality rules.