Internet providers are barred from restricting how customers use their service even if it means allowing competitors to run rival services under new rules adopted by US Federal communications regulators.
The rules are intended to promote "net neutrality" and have the backing of the White House, but immediately came in for condemnation by Republicans who said investors would be discouraged from putting money into providing broadband services.
The rules were agreed by the Federal Communications Commission by a vote of 3:2, and are the culmination of a year of pressure by Julius Genachowski, the regulator's chairman.
Among the consequences of the new rules is that telephone and cable companies will be banned from favouring or discriminating against internet content and services that travel over their networks. The content can include online calling services such as Skype, internet video services such as Netflix and other applications that are direct competitors to their core businesses.
While Republicans complained the rules were too proscriptive, other critics argued the rules are too weak to protect the way people are accessing the internet through devices such as smart phones and tablets.
Net neutrality, and the threats to it, became a political issue for many people in 2007 when Comcast Corp. slowed traffic from an internet file-sharing service called BitTorrent. The cable giant argued that the service, which was used to trade movies and other big files was clogging its network.
The rules wouldn't apply to phone makers, so Apple could still dictate which applications to accept or reject for the iPhone. Apple could choose to block Skype, for instance, even if AT&T, which provides wireless service for the iPhone, can't. At a time when more and more people go online using smart phones and other mobile devices, the rules leave wireless carriers with tremendous control over tomorrow's internet, said Gigi Sohn, president of the public interest group Public Knowledge.