Despite an outcry from lawmakers and citizens, the Federal Communication Commission overturned a two-year-old set of rules passed during the Obama administration to protect consumers against bad behavior from their Internet service provider.
The FCC's action is seen as a victory for big telecom and cable companies such as AT&T, Charter, Comcast and Verizon. The current rules, which prevented Internet service providers (ISPs) from anti-consumer actions such as blocking and throttling content, went into effect in 2015.
The new regulations, passed by the Republican-controlled commissions' 3-2 vote, instead require ISPs to disclose any blocking or prioritization of their own content or from their partners. They officially take effect after publication in the Federal Register.
But opponents do not plan to go quietly and are already planning strategies to combat the regulations in Congress and the courts. Some in Congress say they will introduce Congressional Review Act legislation to overturn the measure.
And just as previous attempts to pass Internet regulations landed in court, so likely will these new rules. The 2015 measure, passed by an agency then controlled by Democrats and led by Chairman Tom Wheeler, withstood a court challenge from USTelecom, a trade association that counts among its members AT&T and Verizon, and San Antonio-Internet provider Alamo Broadband.
Decrying those so-called net neutrality regulations as "heavy-handed micromanagement" and "utility- style" regulations, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the replacement provisions do a better job for consumers and businesses alike.
The FCC's action "is not going to end the Internet as we know it. It is not going to kill democracy and it's not going to stifle free expression online," Pai said. "We are helping consumers and promoting competition."
Appointed as FCC chairman by President Trump in January, Pai voted against the rules when they were passed in February 2015 -- he was a commissioner then -- and has supported "light-touch" regulations that instead require ISPs to disclose any blocking or prioritization of their own content or from their partners.
Under the new rules, called the Restoring Internet Freedom order, ISPs also must disclose any cases in which they prioritize some content, whether its their own or that of a paying partner, over other content. The new order also eliminates an Internet conduct standard meant to prevent ISPs from unreasonable interference with consumer's access to destinations on the Net.
Those against the overturning of the rules conducted an online protest this week and FCC officials were met this morning with protesters outside the agency before today's meeting.
The protests and outcry from consumer groups, legislators and businesses small and larger suggest the broad interest in the FCC keeping strong net neutrality rules, said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn. "The public can plainly see, that a soon-to-be-toothless FCC, is handing the keys to the Internet ... over to a handful of multi-billion dollar corporations," she said.
She and fellow Democratic commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said they held out hope in Congressional action or a court decision to reinstate the 2015 rules. "If the arc of history is long, we are going to bend this toward a more just outcome. In the courts. In Congress. Wherever we need to go to ensure that net neutrality stays the law of the land," Rosenworcel said.