The Federal Communications Commission Thursday approved strict new rules for Internet service providers, passing so-called net neutrality regulations sure to ignite a barrage of legal challenges and debate about how Americans access digital information.
By a 3-2 vote, FCC commissioners opted to begin treating the Internet like a public utility, using Title II of the 1934 Communications Act to dramatically expand oversight of broadband providers.
"We listened, and we learned," said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. "The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules."
Wheeler was joined by the commission’s two Democratic members in pushing through a plan that he opposed last year. The two Republican commissioners voted against the plan.
Critics have accused Wheeler of acquiescing to pressure from President Obama, who made a very public push in recent months for the independent agency to approve his net neutrality standards.
Under the rules, service providers would be prohibited from establishing so-called fast lanes, charging companies higher prices for quicker access to Web sites. They are also not allowed to slow content delivery, a prohibition that defenders say would ensure an “open Internet.”
However, Republicans charge that the FCC vote was unnecessary and is just the latest example of executive overreach during the Obama years. They also say the regulations will stifle the growth of the industry.
“Americans love the free and open Internet,” said FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. “So it is sad to witness this morning the FCC’s unprecedented attempt to replace that freedom with government control.”
The controversial vote came after an extensive grassroots campaign in which the typically lesser-known Washington agency was inundated with millions of public comments advocating for a stronger net neutrality commitment.
In advance of Thursday’s vote, Republicans were accused of retreating on the issue, as they did not introduce their own legislative proposal as expected. However, Republicans insist they will pursue legislation in the coming months.
“Any claims that Republicans have conceded or surrendered to the Obama administration’s power grab of the Internet through FCC action is a mischaracterization of our ongoing efforts,” said Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, R-S.D. “One way or another, I am committed to moving a legislative solution, preferably bipartisan, to stop monopoly-era phone regulations that harm Internet consumers and innovation.”
Conservatives argue that the progressive victory could be short-lived. A federal court tossed the last version of the net neutrality rules.
Industry groups expect at least one of the major Internet service providers to file a lawsuit and request that the latest regulations not be enshrined until the legal process plays out. And if a Republican wins the White House in 2016, a GOP-led FCC could always overturn the rules.