WASHINGTON -- Federal regulators voted Thursday to allow Internet providers to speed up service for websites they favor -- and block or slow down others -- in a decision repealing landmark regulations from the time of President Barack Obama that provide for oversight of broadband companies such as AT&T and Verizon.
The move by the Federal Communications Commission to deregulate the telecom and cable industries was a prominent example of the policy shifts taking place in Washington under President Donald Trump and a major setback for consumer groups, tech companies and Democrats who had lobbied heavily against the decision.
The 3-2 vote, which was along party lines, enabled the FCC's Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, to follow through on his promise to repeal the government's 2015 Net-neutrality rules, which required Internet providers to treat all websites, large and small, equally. The agency also rejected some of its own authority over the broadband industry in a bid to stymie future FCC officials who might seek to reverse the Republican-led ruling.
The result was a redrawing of the FCC's oversight powers, at a time of rapid transformation in the media and technology sectors.
The vote has also cast a spotlight on Pai, once a little-known regulator, who has become one of the faces of deregulation in the Trump era. On the eve of the vote, Pai released a video that featured him dressed as Santa, wielding a lightsaber and clutching a fidget spinner to defend his decision to repeal the Net-neutrality rules and mock his critics.
"Within a generation, we have gone from email as the killer app to high-definition video streaming," Pai told an audience at the FCC ahead of the pivotal vote. "Entrepreneurs and innovators guided the Internet far better than the heavy hand of government ever could have."
Consumers might not feel the effects of this decision right away. But eventually they could begin to see packages and pricing schemes that would steer them toward some content over others, critics of the FCC's vote argued.
For example, under the Obama-era rules, Verizon was not allowed to favor Yahoo and AOL, which it owns, by blocking Google or charging the search giant extra fees to connect to customers. Under the new rules, that type of behavior would be legal as long as Verizon disclosed it.
"You and I and everyone else who uses the Internet for personal use will see some changes in pricing models," wrote Glenn O'Donnell, an industry analyst at the research firm Forrester, in an email. "For most of us, I expect we will pay more. Service bundles (e.g., social media package, streaming video package) will likely be bolted on to basic transport for things like Web surfing and email."
Pai's opponents vowed to wage a fierce campaign. The hacking group Anonymous said it will "make these men realize what a terrible mistake they made," threatening to "come after" Pai and his allies. Opponents of the FCC action, meanwhile, said they would take the agency to court. New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announced Thursday that he intends to file a multistate lawsuit "to stop the FCC's illegal rollback of Net neutrality."
A legal challenge would extend the tortuous journey of a consequential technology policy that began in 2004 under President George W. Bush and that has been approved by the FCC in multiple incarnations, only to be struck down or reversed later. Both sides have well-heeled companies and sophisticated lobbying operations, with cable and telecom groups opposing restrictions on their activities and highflying tech giants and startups seeking such rules.
"For the last decade, we've been on a regulatory roller coaster," said Jack Nadler, a partner at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. "We are likely looking at two or three more years of uncertainty. And then there is the 2020 presidential election, which could lead to yet another policy upheaval."
The FCC's decision eclipses what would have been considered middle-of-the-road conservative positions just a decade ago, said Jeffrey Blumenfeld, co-chairman of the antitrust and trade regulation practice at the law firm Lowenstein Sandler.
"What we're seeing now is a dramatic change not just from the Obama administration, but even from the prior Republican administration," said Blumenfeld.
Under President George W. Bush, the FCC outlined a series of guiding principles that would eventually lead to the 2015 Net-neutrality rules. Then-FCC Chairman Michael Powell, in a 2004 speech, said Internet users should enjoy four fundamental freedoms: the freedom to access any Web content of their choice so long as it was legal; the freedom to use any online application; the freedom to use their home broadband connections on any device; and the freedom to get subscription information from their own providers.
Internet providers say that the move by the FCC will not lead to the death of the Internet, as some Net-neutrality activists have claimed.
They argue there is no incentive for them to penalize specific apps or services, that giving some sites the option of faster service could in fact benefit consumers, and that the new rules allow the Federal Trade Commission to sue carriers that act anti-competitively. Consumers' daily Internet experience will not change, according to some industry officials.
The FCC also voted along party lines to kick off a review of how many TV stations one company can own.
The current limit, in place for more than a decade, says that one company can't own TV stations that reach more than 39 percent of the U.S. population. The FCC will determine over the next several months if it should eliminate or change that cap.
Consumer groups worry that raising or getting rid of the cap will lead to more consolidation and fewer voices in local TV, including news broadcasts.
The ownership limit is also a contentious issue because conservative broadcaster Sinclair Broadcast wants to buy rival Tribune Media. That deal still needs regulatory approval. If cleared, the combined company would reach more than 70 percent of U.S. households.
The three Republicans voted Thursday to proceed with the review, with the two Democrats opposed. Final rules would be voted on down the road.
The FCC has already weakened rules meant to support independent local media, allowing one company to own newspapers and broadcast TV stations in one market and making it easier for one company to own two TV stations in one market. That move was supported by the newspaper and broadcasting industries.
Information for this article was contributed by The Associated Press.
A Section on 12/15/2017
Print Headline: With 3-2 vote, FCC scraps Net neutrality