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U.S. Supreme Court rejects net neutrality appeals after year delay

In this Oct. 9, 2018 photo, police office guards the main entrance to the Supreme Court in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
In this Oct. 9, 2018 photo, police office guards the main entrance to the Supreme Court in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais / Associated Press)
By Greg Stohr Bloomberg

The U.S. Supreme Court turned away a group of long-pending appeals from the broadband industry over the Obama-era “net neutrality” rule, which barred internet service providers from giving preferential treatment to some web traffic.

The appeals, filed more than a year ago, lost most of their practical significance in June, when a new Federal Communications Commission order took effect and abolished the net neutrality rule.

The main remaining issue for the Supreme Court was whether to set aside the 2016 federal appeals court decision that upheld the net neutrality rule as being within the FCC’s authority. President Donald Trump’s administration urged the court to take that step, which would have stripped the ruling of any force as a precedent.

A divided high court refused and instead simply rejected the appeals, leaving the 2016 ruling in place. Three conservative justices – Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch – said they would have set aside the appeals court decision and ordered the underlying case dismissed.

Chief Justice John Roberts and new Justice Brett Kavanaugh didn’t participate in the Supreme Court’s action. Neither gave a reason, but Kavanaugh played a role in the case on the appeals court, saying he would have overturned the net neutrality rule.

Roberts may have had a financial reason for recusing. According to his most recent financial disclosure report, he owned $250,001 to $500,000 in Time Warner Inc. stock at the end of last year. Since then, Time Warner has been acquired by AT&T Inc., one of the companies that challenged the rule.

Supporters say net neutrality protects consumers, while opponents say it discourages investment.

The appeals lingered mostly because the Trump administration sought repeated extensions of the deadline for filing the government’s brief. Those extensions gave the FCC time to put the new rule in place before the court acted.

The FCC’s rescission of the net neutrality rule came after Republicans, led by Chairman Ajit Pai, took control of the agency last year. The cancellation is now being challenged in court.

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