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AT&T ditches court fight challenging FTC's authority over broadband

The carrier won't appeal its case to the Supreme Court, safeguarding the trade commission's role as cop on the net neutrality beat.

Washington DC, Federal Trade Commission, building exterior and sign

AT&T is accepting the Federal Trade Commission's authority over broadband. 

Jeff Greenberg

AT&T has given up efforts to challenge the Federal Trade Commission's authority to regulate broadband providers.

AT&T on Tuesday informed court officials that it would not file a petition to the US Supreme Court to challenge a lower court's decision in the case. In 2014, the FTC sued AT&T in the US District Court of Northern California, accusing the company of promising unlimited data service to customers and then slowing that service down to rates that were barely usable. The case hasn't yet gone to trial since AT&T had argued that the FTC has no authority over any of AT&T's businesses.

The US Appeals court in Northern California rejected that argument in February and said the case could proceed. AT&T had until May 29 to file an appeal the the Supreme Court to challenge the decision.

AT&T indicated earlier this month in a status report submitted to the appeals court that it was considering appealing to the Supreme Court to stop the case.

This case was being closely watched by net neutrality supporters, because the question of whether the FTC has authority over AT&T would have had big implications for the future of the internet and whether there will be any cop on the beat ensuring that consumers are protected from big phone companies abusing their power online.

Why? When the Federal Communications Commission gave up its authority to police the internet with its repeal of net neutrality regulations in December, it specifically handed authority to protect consumers online to the FTC.

Net neutrality is the idea that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally and that large companies like AT&T, which is trying to buy Time Warner, can't favor their own content over a competitor's content. Rules adopted by a Democrat-led FCC in 2015 codified these principles into regulation. The current FCC, controlled by Republicans, voted to repeal the regulations and hand over authority to protect internet consumers to the FTC.

But there was one hitch in the law that could have made it impossible for the FTC to oversee some of the biggest broadband companies. Many of these companies, like AT&T and Verizon, also operate traditional telephone networks, which are still regulated by the FCC. AT&T argued that because some aspects of its business, like its traditional phone services, are regulated by the FCC, the FTC doesn't have jurisdiction.

A federal appeals court disagreed with AT&T's argument, stating the FTC can fill in oversight gaps when certain services, like broadband, aren't regulated by the FCC. If AT&T had appealed to the Supreme Court and if the court had taken the case and ruled in AT&T's favor, it would have meant that phone companies providing broadband or wireless internet services would be immune from government oversight. By contrast, cable companies, which do not operate traditional phone networks regulated by the FCC, would still be under the authority of the FTC.

For now, that doomsday scenario is put to rest and the lower court's ruling that the FTC can, in fact, oversee all broadband providers stands.

Meanwhile, net neutrality supporters continue their fight to preserve the 2015 rules. Several states, including California and New York, are considering legislation to reinstate net neutrality rules. Earlier this year, Washington became the first state to sign such legislation into law. Governors in several states, including New Jersey and Montana, have signed executive orders requiring ISPs that do business with the state adhere to net neutrality principles.

Democrats in the US Senate are also trying to reinstate the FCC's rules through the Congressional Review Act, which gives Congress 60 legislative days in which to overturn federal regulations. The resolution passed the Senate earlier this month and must pass the House of Representatives and eventually be signed into law by President Donald Trump to officially turn back the repeal of the rules.

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