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Court decision clouds future of net neutrality

Published: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 11:36 p.m. CDT • Updated: Friday, Feb. 14, 2014 11:45 p.m. CDT

A federal appeals court may have closed the World Wide Web as users have always known it.

The decision last month from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that prevents the federal government from enforcing net neutrality rules has riled free speech experts and open Internet advocates.

They fear the ruling allows Internet service providers, like Verizon and AT&T, to dictate how users access Internet content, while certain broadband providers have argued that net neutrality rules are unnecessary.

“There is concern now on the part of net neutrality people that without some specific statement from the government ... [providers] will now begin selecting what is provided to you on the Internet,” said David Gunkel, a Northern Illinois University professor of communication technology.

Net neutrality was the idea behind the Federal Communications Commission’s “Open Internet Rules” that prevented Internet service providers from blocking content and altering services to consumers.

Verizon challenged the idea in court, arguing that the FCC rules overreached and were unnecessary since few documented instances of providers blocking content exists.

But the lasting effects of the latest court decision remain unclear. The FCC could appeal the decision, while open Internet advocates have slowly begun pushing Congress to pass stronger regulations on providers.

Providers also have yet to exercise their newfound authority on consumers, despite concerns that tiered Internet packages, blocked services and throttled web speeds will eventually become the norm.

The Internet “was the big democratizer” to media, and it allowed anyone – from amateur bloggers to media conglomerates – to spread information with equal access, Gunkel said.

The fear, he said, is that large Internet providers could charge for prioritized access to content or even exclude certain services that compete with a provider’s own services.

“They could start bundling access to Internet content the same way they bundle access to cable,” Gunkel said.

Comcast is one Internet service provider that plans to respect Open Internet Rules through 2018. The company made that commitment when the government needed to approve its acquisition of NBCUniversal.

Regardless, the open Internet rules protected consumers’ interests and respected companies’ management decisions, said David Cohen, Comcast executive vice president, in a statement following the federal appellate decision.

“We remain comfortable with that commitment because we have not – and will not – block our customers’ ability to access lawful Internet content, applications or services,” Cohen said in the statement. “Comcast’s customers want an open and vibrant Internet, and we are absolutely committed to deliver that experience.”

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