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FCC approves net neutrality rules for broadband Internet

February 26, 2015, 6:32 PM UTC
Federal Communications Commission commissioner Michael O'Rielly speaks at a FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington
Federal Communications Commission (FCC) commissioner Michael O'Rielly (R) speaks at a FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington February 26, 2015. The FCC is expected Thursday to approve Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposed "net neutrality" rules, regulating broadband providers more heavily than in the past and restricting their power to control download speeds on the web. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS SCIENCE TECHNOLOGY BUSINESS TELECOMS) - RTR4RB8X
Photograph by Yuri Gripas — Reuters

Proponents of net neutrality scored a major victory Thursday when the Federal Communications Commission voted to pass tough new rules meant to regulate high-speed Internet providers and ensure an open Internet.

The FCC’s commissioners voted 3-2 to pass a set of rules proposed earlier this month by chairman Tom Wheeler. As was expected, the commission’s two Democratic commissioners voted alongside Wheeler, also a Democrat, while the two Republican commissioners accounted for the “no” votes.

Thursday’s vote comes a few weeks after Wheeler penned an op-ed outlining his plan to put forth what he called “the strongest open internet protections ever proposed” by the FCC. By approving Wheeler’s proposal, the FCC voted to ban paid prioritization on both wired and mobile networks while reclassifying high-speed Internet service as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act. The rule change will allow the FCC to treat Internet Service Providers (ISPs) more like public utilities, such as phone companies, which are subject to stricter regulation.

Under the new FCC rules, ISPs will be prohibited from blocking any lawful Internet content or establishing so-called Internet fast-lanes where broadband providers accept payments from certain companies and websites in exchange for faster content delivery.

Even with Thursday’s vote, the FCC is expecting ongoing political opposition to the new rules as well as from the telecommunications industry’s heavyweights. House Republicans have argued that stricter regulation of ISPs could stifle innovation. But they also said earlier this week that their alternative legislation was unlikely to be passed due to a lack of support from Democrats across the aisle.

The FCC could also face a prolonged legal battle, as various telecoms and cable providers — such as AT&T (T), Verizon (VZ) and others — are expected to band together in a federal lawsuit challenging the new Internet rules. The courts have been involved in the net neutrality debate before. Last year, a federal appeals court struck down previous FCC rules that sought to ban Internet “fast lanes.” That ruling, which came after a legal challenge mounted by Verizon, said the FCC could not enforce such rules unless ISPs were reclassified under Title II to be regulated more like utilities.

Wheeler later submitted a plan to side-step reclassification and allow ISPs to negotiate contracts with content providers to provide faster streaming speeds. That plan was met with intense public scrutiny and even spurred President Obama to weigh in last fall, when he publicly urged the FCC to adopt “the strongest possible rules” to enforce net neutrality.

In addition to the White House’s support, the new FCC rules also have support from a number of Internet and tech companies, including Netflix (NFLX), Reddit and Vimeo, which all joined an Internet Slowdown Day last fall to protest “fast lanes.”

Prior to Thursday’s vote, the FCC held an open meeting that included various arguments on both sides of the net neutrality issue. Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai argued against the proposed rules, repeating the argument that stricter regulation would hinder Internet innovation. Pai also accused the commission of bending to the will of President Obama. (Wheeler was appointed chairman by Obama, though the FCC is not subject to White House control.)

Wheeler, speaking before the FCC’s vote, railed against opponents’ attempts to cast the new rules as “a secret plan to regulate the Internet.”

“This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” Wheeler said just ahead of the commission’s vote. “They both stand for the same thing: openness, expression, and an absence of gate-keepers telling people what they can do, where they can go and what they can think.”

The FCC chairman added that the new FCC rules seek to encourage Internet ” innovation by making sure that there are ground rules.”