A Ruling Could Support F.C.C.'s Net Neutrality Defense

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The Federal Communications Commission's attempt to defend its net neutrality rules against a court challenge got major support on Monday from the Supreme Court, which ruled in a separate case that regulatory agencies should usually be granted deference in interpreting their own jurisdictions.

In a 6-to-3 decision, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that in cases where Congress has left ambiguous the outlines of a regulatory agency's jurisdiction, "the court must defer to the administering agency's construction of the statute so long as it is permissible."

That has big implications for Verizon v. F.C.C., in which Verizon challenged the F.C.C.'s Open Internet Order, its rules on net neutrality. Those rules said that an Internet service provider must treat all traffic on its system roughly equally, not giving priority to any one type of data or application as it moves through the provider's Internet pipes.

The net neutrality case is pending before the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. The appeals court was expected to hear arguments in that case this spring, but deferred the case until next fall. Court watchers have speculated that the delay may have been spurred by anticipation of Monday's decision in Arlington v. F.C.C., No. 11-1545.

"This case just gave the F.C.C.'s argument a lot more weight," said David Kaut, a telecommunications regulatory analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Company in Washington. Mr. Kaut cautioned, however, that the differing facts of the two cases made it uncertain whether the precedent in the Arlington case was sufficient to validate the F.C.C.'s argument that it has authority to regulate Internet service providers.

Edward S. McFadden, a Verizon spokesman, said the company did not "anticipate that today's decision in Arlington v. F.C.C. will have any effect on our appeal" in the net neutrality case.

The precedent applied by Justice Scalia in the Arlington case was Chevron U.S.A. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, in which the court held that courts must defer to an agency's interpretation of its statutory jurisdiction unless it exceeds the specific bounds set by Congress.

How that applies to the Verizon case remains uncertain, however, because of a previous decision by the District of Columbia Circuit itself, in Comcast v. F.C.C. In that case, which involved a net neutrality enforcement proceeding, the circuit court said in 2010 that the F.C.C. did not have authority over Comcast's Internet service.

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This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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