The US government agency regulating communications has ended “net neutrality” rules that ensure a free and open internet, granting broadband companies to exert substantial control over the internet and setting up a court fight over the move.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted Thursday to roll back net neutrality rules which required internet providers to treat all traffic equally, a move critics say would curb online freedom.
The FCC, in a three-to-two vote, adopted a proposal by Republican-appointed chairman Ajit Pai, who said his plan would scrap what he called the “heavy-handed” rules, which he argued discouraged investment and innovation.
Appointed by US President Donald Trump in January, Pai was a fierce critic of the neutrality rules adopted under then President Barack Obama in 2015 and earlier this month unveiled his plan named the “Restoring internet Freedom” order.
It will take weeks for the repeal to go into effect, so consumers will not see any of the potential changes right away.
Democratic member of the FCC Mignon Clyburn, one of the two dissenters, charged that the agency was “handing the keys to the internet” to “a handful of multibillion dollar corporations.”
“I dissent, because I am among the millions outraged,” Clyburn said. “Outraged, because the FCC pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers.”
Critics of the vote believe that internet service providers might take advantage of the freedom to prioritize certain types of web traffic which could ultimately have an effect on speeds or pricing.
Supporters have argued that removing the regulations will boost innovation and competition.
What is net neutrality?
Net neutrality prevents Internet service providers from slowing down connections for people attempting to access certain sites, apps and services, and blocking legal content.
Without the rules, they will no longer have to treat all internet traffic equally, and will be able to prioritize certain websites and services over others.
Some also fear internet service providers will seek to extract higher fees from services that are heavy data users, like Netflix or other streaming services, with these costs passed on to consumers, but new startups without the resources of major companies would be more likely to feel the pain.
Reactions to FCC ruling
Net neutrality activists have staged a series of protests in cities around the US and online, amid fears that dominant broadband providers could change how the internet works.
Many of the world’s biggest internet companies also staged a day of protests earlier this year, to highlight what could happen if net neutrality was ended.
Reddit, for instance, altered its logo to make it look like it was loading extremely slowly, while the likes of Netflix and Amazon added banners to its home page.
Following the Thursday FCC rule, tech giants such as Facebook, Twitter and Google opposed the decision. The internet Association, the trade group that represents big tech firms such as Google and Facebook, said it also was considering legal action.
Several public interest groups including Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition also promised to file a suit.
Within minutes of the vote, the attorneys general of New York State and Washington State vowed to challenge the FCC in court.
Democratic Senator Ed Markey said he would ask lawmakers for a regulatory review to overturn what he called the FCC’s “misguided and partisan decision” in order to “keep the internet in the hands of the people.”