The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the US has voted to kill off net neutrality, a move that could completely change how the internet works.
As expected, the FCC board voted 3-2 in favour of repealing the Obama-era protections.
The result hands an enormous amount of power to internet service providers (ISPs), which will no longer need to treat all internet traffic equally.
Republican commissioners Ajit Pai, Michael O’Rielly and Brendan Carr voted in favour of repealing the net neutrality rules, while Democratic commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn voted to keep the rules in place.
Almost as soon as the vote came down, elected officials and advocacy organisations decried the change and vowed action to reverse it, foreshadowing struggles likely to play out through the courts and in Congress.
Multiple attorneys general promised a legal challenge, with New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman calling the vote “illegal”. California State Senator Scott Wiener said he would introduce a California-specific bill enshrining net neutrality.
“Allowing internet service providers to discriminate based on content undermines a free and open Internet. Today’s action will seriously harm consumers, innovation and small businesses,” Washington Attorney General Bob Ferguson said in a statement announcing a planned lawsuit.
Members of Congress also weighed in to assail the vote, previewing the likelihood that the fight over net neutrality will now move to Capitol Hill. While opposition has largely flowed from Democrats, some Republicans have also said Congress should settle the matter. Multiple members pledged to introduce resolutions allowing Congress to review and overturn the FCC’s action.
The proposal had been put forward by FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who was elevated to his current role by Donald Trump and used to work for Verizon.
“Let's be clear. Following today's vote Americans will still be able to access the websites they want to visit,” commissioner Pai said at today's meeting.
“The main complaint consumers have about the internet is not and has never been that there are service providers blocking access to content. It’s that they don't have access at all or not enough competition.”
The White House backed the change.
“The Trump administration supports the FCC’s effort to roll back burdensome regulations,” White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said.
According to Mr Pai, net neutrality has “taken us in the opposite direction from consumer preferences”, and resulted in a decline in investment in high-speed networks.
The rules prevented ISPs from blocking content, throttling connections to certain sites and services and providing preferential treatment to others.
Supporters of net neutrality believe this will result in ISPs carving the internet into “fast and slow lanes”, and customers being charged more.
They also say it could harm competition. ISPs that have their own video services, for instance, could choose to slow down customers’ connections when they tried to use a competing service, such as Netflix.
“I dissent. I dissent from this legally lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling, destroying internet freedom order. I dissent because I am among the millions outraged, outraged because the FCC pulls its own teeth advocating responsibility to protect the nations broadband consumers,” said commissioner Clyburn, echoing the thoughts of many net neutrality proponents.
“As a result of today's misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new powers. They will have the power to block websites, the power to throttle services and the power to censor online content,” said commissioner Rosenworcel.
“They will have the right to discriminate and favour the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have a pay-for-pay arrangement and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road.
“Our broadband providers will tell you they will never do these things, they say just trust us.
“But know this, they have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic and now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead and do so. This is not good.”
As they mull a legislative response, members of Congress will face pressure from advocacy organisations – and potentially powerful technology firms – who have registered their disapproval of the FCC decision. Vowing that the “war is far from over”, the American Civil Liberties Union circulated a petition pushing Congress to act.
While large tech companies opposed the move, some of the most prominent ones have been fairly muted in their criticism. Others, like streaming content giant Netflix, have been at the vanguard. Netflix responded to the FCC’s move by tweeting: "This is the beginning of a longer legal battle.”
“Netflix stands with innovators, large & small, to oppose this misguided FCC order,” the company said.
Overturning the FCC's action would need approval from a Republican-controlled Congress, but Mark Stanley, a spokesman for the civil liberties organisation Demand Progress, said in a statement that there is a “good chance” Congress could reverse it.
“The fact that Chairman Pai went through with this, a policy that is so unpopular, is somewhat shocking,” he said. “Unfortunately, not surprising.”
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