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The Legal War Over Net Neutrality Has Begun

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler // Lauren Victoria Burke/AP

The Federal Communications Commission will have to fend off a flurry of lawsuits—and some top legal firepower—to save its net-neutrality rules.

AT&T and three groups representing cable companies and cellular carriers sued to repeal the rules on Tuesday. The U.S. Telecom Association filed its suit on Monday.

And the groups have hired some big legal guns. The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which lobbies for Comcast and other major cable companies, is being represented by former U.S. Solicitor General Ted Olson and former U.S. Assistant to the Solicitor General Miguel Estrada. Olson argued before the Supreme Court on behalf of George W. Bush in the dispute over the 2000 election and in favor of same-sex marriage in 2013. Bush nominated Estrada to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals, but he was blocked by Senate Democrats.

"Congress clearly intended for the Internet to evolve unencumbered by complex, inefficient government regulations," Olson said in a statement. "Instead of letting regulators play the central role in determining how the Internet evolves, they wanted these decisions to be left to the creativity of entrepreneurs, engineers, and consumers. The Commission's decision to expand its power and apply heavy regulation has undermined that core principle."

The American Cable Association, which represents small cable companies, and CTIA, which represents AT&T, Verizon, and other cellular companies, also filed lawsuits on Tuesday.

The FCC isn't backing down from the fight.

"As Chairman [Tom] Wheeler has said, we are confident the FCC's new open-Internet rules will be upheld by the courts, ensuring enforceable protections for consumers and innovators online," Kim Hart, an agency spokeswoman, said in a statement.

The FCC approved the net-neutrality rules in February, and they were officially published on Monday. The goal is to ensure that consumers can access whatever they want online as long as it's legal. The rules bar Internet providers from blocking any online content, throttling traffic, or creating any special "fast lanes" for sites that pay.

The FCC first enacted net-neutrality rules in 2010, but the D.C. Circuit struck them down in early 2014. In an attempt to survive the expected onslaught of lawsuits, the new rules rely on a stronger legal authority by classifying Internet service in the same category as heavily regulated telephone utilities.

The Internet providers consider the rules an unnecessary power grab that will stifle investment in the industry. Republicans in Congress are also working on bills to either repeal the rules entirely or replace them with a compromise.

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