The Supreme Court probably won’t take on net neutrality. Here’s why.

February 8

A month after a federal court ruling struck down the government's ban on Internet traffic throttling, the future of net neutrality remains unclear. Verizon is fending off accusations that it's already slowing down Netflix users. Meanwhile, the nation's top telecom regulator still hasn't ruled out an appeal.

Could the Federal Communications Commission take net neutrality to the Supreme Court? Perhaps. But it's probably not going to happen, and here's why.

Appealing the latest decision would be a high-risk, high-reward strategy. Assuming the court agreed to hear the case, the FCC could have its original regulations upheld. That would mean Internet providers would again be barred from blocking certain types of Web content or from giving priority to other forms of traffic.

Policy experts say that possibility is remote. Instead, the court would be more likely to reject the case or sustain the D.C. Circuit's decision. Both outcomes would leave the FCC in the same position that it's in now, unable to impose blanket bans on ISP behavior but having some leeway for other forms of regulation.

But in the worst-case scenario for the FCC, the Supreme Court could restrict the agency's regulatory power even further. According to analysts, the right-leaning court would be naturally inclined to support arguments advanced by a conservative judge in the D.C. Circuit, Laurence Silberman. Silberman dissented from the majority in last month's ruling, arguing that Congress gave the FCC little room to run on net neutrality. (That's a departure from the majority opinion, which said that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act does grant the FCC some ability to regulate broadband deployment.)

If the court sided with Silberman, that would be a major defeat for federal regulators. It would eliminate what net neutrality supporters see as a silver lining in the D.C. Circuit ruling that gives it potentially far-reaching powers.

The thought of losing Section 706 acts as a deterrent to an appeal, said Matt Wood, policy director for the public advocacy group Free Press.

"The chance for overturning Section 706 authority is there," Wood said.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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