It’s been more than six months since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to repeal net neutrality, with the repeal becoming official in early June. And while the move has left many Americans concerned about their ability to access the web in a convenient and reliable way in the future, a recent court decision has found that Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, cannot use the repeal to excuse providing their customers with lousy service.
If you’re not familiar with net neutrality, it’s essentially the idea that all subscribers should receive roughly the same quality of Internet access across all available content. Its repeal late last year by the FCC under chairman Ajit Pai was seen by some as a death knell to fair and affordable Internet access, with many worrying that ISPs will have the freedom to drastically increase prices and conditions without being held accountable.
Many Americans see the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality as a way for ISPs to offer varying levels of Internet access, allowing some content providers to cut deals with ISPs and telecoms for preferential treatment that would include “fast lane” internet access to their online services, leaving the rest of the Internet to lower-bandwidth, Internet “slow lanes”. This would leave the average broadband customer with a level of service much worse than they enjoy now, considering a many of ISPs operate as a de-facto monopoly in the areas in which they operate.
Concern over this situation has been so intense that the US Senate earlier this year voted to kill the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality. The Whitehouse’s move to mandate net neutrality still faces approval from the House, and many experts feel that’s highly unlikely given Republican domination of that legislative body.
But for now, some good news, a tiny ray of sunshine descends upon net neutrality supporters through the FCC’s dark clouds. The First Department of the Supreme Court, Appellate Division of the State of New York late last week ruled that ISPs could not use the net neutrality repeal to avoid lawsuits associated with poor service. The ruling was specifically tied to legal action against the ISP Charter Spectrum, which had been sued for advertising Internet speeds that internal communications among company executives showed to be impossible.
In essence, this ISP had lied to consumers about the service they could provide and then attempted to use the repeal of net neutrality to dodge having to take legal responsibility for their false advertising. It is precisely what many net neutrality defenders had worried about when the FCC moved to repeal in December.
Thankfully, the court set a clear legal precedent to Charter Spectrum, that the repeal of net neutrality did not prevent states like New York from enforcing laws “that prevent fraud, deception and false advertising” when it comes to quality of Internet service.
Consumer rights groups are hailing the ruling as a victory, though it’s hard to get too excited about one court’s decision to enforce what may be seen as the absolute bare minimum: ensuring ISPs can’t flat-out lie to the American people and get away with it.