WASHINGTON — High-speed Internet service can be defined as a utility, a federal court has ruled, in a sweeping decision clearing the way for more rigorous policing of broadband providers and greater protections for Web users.
The 2-1 decision from a three-judge panel at the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit on Tuesday came in a case about rules applying to a doctrine known as net neutrality, which prohibit broadband companies from blocking or slowing the delivery of Internet content to consumers.
Those rules, created by the Federal Communications Commission in early 2015, started a huge legal battle as cable, telecom and wireless Internet providers sued to overturn regulations that they said went far beyond the FCC's authority and would hurt their businesses.
The court's decision upheld the FCC on the historic declaration of broadband as a utility, the most significant aspect of the rules. That has broad-reaching implications for Web and telecommunications companies and signals a shift in the government's view of broadband as a service that should be equally accessible to all Americans, rather than a luxury that does not need close government supervision.
"After a decade of debate and legal battles, today's ruling affirms the commission's ability to enforce the strongest possible Internet protections — both on fixed and mobile networks — that will ensure the Internet remains open, now and in the future," Tom Wheeler, chairman of the FCC, said in a statement.
The 184-page ruling opens a path for new limits on broadband providers. Already, the FCC has proposed privacy rules for broadband providers, limiting the ability of companies like Verizon and AT&T to collect and share data about broadband subscribers.
Google and Netflix support net neutrality rules and have warned government officials that without regulatory limits, broadband providers would have an incentive to create business models that could harm consumers. They argue that broadband providers could degrade the quality of downloads and streams of online services to extract tolls from Web companies or to promote unfairly their own competing services or the content of partners.
"This is an enormous win for consumers," said Gene Kimmelman, president of the public interest group Public Knowledge. "It ensures the right to an open Internet with no gatekeepers."
The legal battle from the broadband industry is far from over. The cable and telecom industries have signaled their intent to challenge any unfavorable decision, possibly taking the case to the Supreme Court.
AT&T immediately said it would continue to fight.
"We have always expected this issue to be decided by the Supreme Court, and we look forward to participating in that appeal," said David McAtee II, senior executive vice president and general counsel for AT&T.
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In a statement, the cable industry's biggest lobbying group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, highlighted the comments of the dissenting judge, Stephen Williams, and said its members were reviewing the opinion. The group also said broadband legislation by Congress was a better alternative to the FCC's classification of Internet business as a utility.