Federal regulators voted Thursday to impose sweeping net neutrality rules that supporters say are critical to protecting the freedom of the Internet.
In a party-line 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved to embrace an approach advocated by President Obama to treat Internet service like a utility in order to prevent major companies such as Comcast or Verizon from slowing, blocking or creating “toll roads” for people’s access to the Internet.
“The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet; it’s simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat.
“The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”
After a decade spent by activists pushing for strong federal rules, supporters said the new regulations would be a strong bulwark to prevent people from being abused online. In the end, those activists helped drive more than 4 million net neutrality comments to the agency — by far an FCC record.
On Thursday, the commission’s meeting room was packed with activists, lawyers and journalists who trudged through the February snowfall to attend the historic hearing. Meanwhile, dozens of proponents of the rules gathered outside the agency’s Southwest Washington headquarters to cheer on the vote.
“Today, because of your efforts we are better able to allow millions of Americans to tell their stories, to reach their potential and to reach the American ideal,” said Mignon Clyburn, another Democratic commissioner, in thanking activists for their work.
The vote puts an end to a tumultuous 13-month rulemaking period prompted by a federal appeals court ruling last January, which tossed out previous regulations dating from 2010.
The FCC’s new rules reclassify broadband Internet from an “information” service to a “telecommunications” service under its rules, essentially reversing an FCC policy that dates back to 2002. By making that move, the FCC will be able to exert more authority over people’s access to the Internet, similar to its treatment of utility services like phone lines.
In order to resist avoid a heavy-handed approach, the commission will hold back some of the provisions including, officials supportive of the rules say, measures to oversee companies’ subscription rates.
The regulations will also cover wireless Internet accessed by people over their smartphones and tablets — which were exempt under the FCC’s 2010 rules.
Finally, they will empower the FCC to police “interconnection” arrangements that companies make to hand off traffic on the back end of the Internet.
The bold regulations represent the culmination of months of aggressive lobbying from activists and Internet companies, both at the FCC and throughout the country.
Along with an unrelated action on Thursday to strike down state laws limiting the growth of city-owned broadband networks, the vote is part of a major swing toward asserting federal powers to guarantee equal access to the Internet.
The three Democrats were greeted by a standing ovation as they took their place at the dais.
For Wheeler, the vote is also the result of a stunning turnaround that seemed nearly impossible just one year ago.
Earlier draft rules unveiled by the chairman last year would have allowed Web providers to charge websites to speed up their traffic, which could have opened the door to a “two-tiered” Internet, critics feared. Activists launched a sustained lobbying campaign to get Wheeler to change his tune, which was significantly aided by a push from President Obama in November.
Republicans on Capitol Hill have since launched investigations into whether the White House put any improper pressure on the FCC, which is a legally independent agency.
Both on the FCC and throughout the country, Republicans are unconvinced that the rules will truly be “light touch” with such a broad law.
They have warned that it could prevent companies from offering new and innovative services and might lead to billions of dollars in new taxes. All of that could also have the added effect of forcing companies to slow down their investments, they say, which could lead to slower Internet speeds over the long run.
“The commission’s decision to adopt President Obama’s plan marks a monumental shift toward government control of the Internet,” said Ajit Pai, one of the commission’s two Republicans. “It’s an overreach that will let a Washington bureaucracy, and not the American people, decide the future of the online world.”
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellMitch McConnellOvernight Finance: Inside Trump's tax plan | White House mulls order pulling out of NAFTA | New fight over Dodd-Frank begins Dem rep: Trump's tax plan as believable as 'magic, unicorns or Batman' GOP leaders, top tax writers: Trump principles will be 'critical guideposts' MORE (R-Ky.) took to the Senate floor Thursday morning to blast the rules, warning that the FCC’s plan would “strike a blow to the future of innovation in our country.”
Major Internet service providers have agreed with them.
The head of the USTelecom trade group on Thursday called the rules "the wrong path for achieving broadband deployment in all parts of the United States."
"It redefines the Internet, inserts the federal government deeply into its management, and invites other countries to do the same," organization president Walter McCormick added. "In reversing longstanding bipartisan precedent, and imposing public utility regulation on the most dynamic sector of our nation’s economy, the FCC is adopting policies that were not designed – nor ever intended – for the Internet."
“Significant” changes were made ahead of the vote to eliminate a new legal category of service that critics had feared could allow Internet service providers to force websites to pay them for sending people their way. The move — which was led by Clyburn — also may have made it harder for the agency to keep tabs on the behind-the-scenes interconnection deals, though she said on Thursday that it should only “strengthen” the rule.
The rules likely won’t be formally issued for weeks.
After that, cable companies are guaranteed to sue, which could tie the issue up for court in years.
In the meantime, Republicans on Capitol Hill have begun work on legislation to enshrine some net neutrality protections in legislation but limit the FCC’s powers in other ways. Democrats have so far balked at the proposal, but lawmakers have said that could change after the Thursday vote.