The court ruling, which came after Comcast asserted that it had the right to slow its cable customers’ access to a file-sharing service called BitTorrent, could prompt efforts in Congress to change the law in order to give the F.C.C. explicit authority to regulate Internet service.
That could prove difficult politically, however, since some conservative Republicans philosophically oppose giving the agency more power, on the grounds that Internet providers should be able to decide what services they offer and at what price.
More broadly, the ruling by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit could raise obstacles to the Obama administration’s effort to increase Americans’ access to high-speed Internet networks.
For example, the national broadband plan released by the administration last month proposed to shift billions of dollars in money from a fund to provide phone service in rural areas to one that helps pay for Internet access in those areas. Legal observers said the court decision suggested that the F.C.C. did not have the authority to make that switch.
The F.C.C. will now have to reconsider its strategy for mandating “net neutrality,” the principle that all Internet content should be treated equally by network providers. One option would be to reclassify broadband service as a sort of basic utility subject to strict regulation, like telephone service. Telephone companies and broadband providers have already indicated that they would vigorously oppose such a move.
The appeals court’s 3-0 decision, which was written by one of the court’s more liberal members, Judge David S. Tatel, focused on the narrow issue of whether the F.C.C. had authority to regulate Comcast’s network management practices.
But it was a clear victory for those who favor limiting the F.C.C.’s regulation of the Internet, said Phil Kerpen, a vice president at Americans for Prosperity, a group that advocates limited government. “The F.C.C. has no legal basis for imposing its dystopian regulatory vision under the net neutrality banner,” he said.
As a practical matter, the court ruling will not have any immediate impact on Internet users, since Comcast and other large Internet providers are not currently restricting specific types of Web content and have no plans to do so.
Comcast, the nation’s largest cable provider, had a muted reaction to its victory. The company said it was gratified by the court’s decision but added that it had changed the management policies that led it to restrict access to BitTorrent, a service used to exchange a range of large data files, from pirated movies to complex software programs.
“Comcast remains committed to the F.C.C.’s existing open Internet principles, and we will continue to work constructively with this F.C.C. as it determines how best to increase broadband adoption and preserve an open and vibrant Internet,” Comcast said in a statement.
The company is currently seeking federal approval for its proposed acquisition of a majority stake in NBC Universal, the parent of the NBC broadcast network and a cadre of popular cable channels. Some members of Congress and consumer groups have opposed the merger, saying that it would enable Comcast to favor its own cable channels and discriminate against those owned by competitors — something the company has said it does not intend to do.
After the ruling on Tuesday, consumer advocates voiced similar concerns about Comcast’s potential power over the Internet, saying that the company could, for example, give priority to transmission of video services of NBC channels and restrict those owned by a competitor like CBS.
“Internet users now have no cop on the beat,” said Ben Scott, policy director for Free Press, a nonprofit organization that supported the F.C.C. in the case.
Julius Genachowski, the chairman of the F.C.C., had said previously that if the agency lost the Comcast case, he would seek to find other legal authority to implement consumer protections over Internet service. In a statement, the F.C.C. said it remained “firmly committed to promoting an open Internet.”
While the court decision invalidated its current approach to that goal, the agency said, “the court in no way disagreed with the importance of providing a free and open Internet, nor did it close the door to other methods for achieving this important end.”