A US appeals court has declared that a net neutrality principle – which would prevent broadband providers blocking or promoting online services – is unconstitutional.
In a landmark case, with potentially wide implications for digital innovation and free speech, the US court of appeals for the District of Columbia ruled in favour of broadband provider Verizon.
Net neutrality, long a controversial issue in the US, has also become a hot topic in Europe as the growth in mobile data has induced some mobile network operators to curb excessive use by shaping traffic.
Operators do this by restricting the bandwidth available to a call or by banning some content, such as Skype's voice and video calls.
The appeals court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) lacks authority to impose the net neutrality rule, which requires high-speed internet firms to treat all web traffic equally.
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The court said the FFC had the authority to enact measures to encourage the deployment of broadband infrastructure and govern broadband providers’ treatment of traffic.
However, the ruling said the FCC may not impose requirement that contravene statutory mandates.
Verizon and its allies have argued that the FCC lacks authority to interfere with their business, and that Congress never decided these companies were regulated utilities or "common carriers".
Supporters of net neutrality believe that overturning the rule could give a handful of dominant broadband companies the power to control services and limit innovative online services.
Media interest group Free Press said the ruling means broadband firms will be able to create tiered pricing structures with fast lanes for those who can afford the tolls and slow lanes for everyone else.
“Internet users will be pitted against the biggest phone and cable companies – and in the absence of any oversight, these companies can now block and discriminate against their customers’ communications at will,” said Craig Aaron, president and CEO of Free Press.
He said the net neutrality rule left much to be desired, but it was a step toward maintaining Internet users’ freedom to go where they wanted, when they wanted, and communicate freely online.
But Verizon executive vice-president Randal Milch said the ruling "will not change consumers' ability to access and use the internet as they do now".
He added that the ruling "will allow more room for innovation, and consumers will have more choices to determine for themselves how they access and experience the internet".