The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to dismantle landmark rules regulating the businesses that connect consumers to the internet, granting broadband companies the power to potentially reshape Americans’ online experiences.
The agency scrapped the so-called net neutrality regulations that prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service or certain content. The federal government will also no longer regulate high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility, like phone service.
The action reversed the agency’s 2015 decision, during the Obama administration, to better protect Americans as they have migrated to the internet for most communications. It will take a couple of weeks for the changes go into effect, but groups opposed to the action have already announced plans to sue the agency to restore the net neutrality regulations. Those suits could take many months to be resolved.
Ajit Pai, the chairman of the commission, said the rollback of the rules would eventually help consumers because broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast could offer people a wider variety of service options. Mr. Pai was joined in the 3-to-2 vote by his two fellow Republican commissioners.
“We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” Mr. Pai said in a speech before the vote. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
The discarding of net neutrality regulations is the most significant and controversial action by the F.C.C. under Mr. Pai. In his first 11 months as chairman, he has lifted media ownership limits, eased caps on how much broadband providers can charge business customers and cut back on a low-income broadband program that was slated to be expanded to nationwide carriers.
His plan for the net neutrality rules, first outlined early this year, set off a flurry of opposition. Critics of the changes say that consumers may have more difficulty finding content online and that start-ups will have to pay to reach consumers. In the past week, there have been hundreds of protests across the country, and many websites have encouraged users to speak up against the repeal. After the vote, numerous groups said they planned to file a lawsuit challenging the change.
The five commissioners were fiercely divided along party lines. In front of a room packed with reporters and television cameras from the major networks, the two Democratic commissioners warned of consumer harms to come from the changes.
Mignon Clyburn, one of the Democratic commissioners, presented two accordion folders full of letters in protest to the changes, and accused the three Republican commissioners of defying the wishes of millions of Americans.
“I dissent, because I am among the millions outraged,” said Ms. Clyburn. “Outraged, because the F.C.C. pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers.”
Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner, said it was a “great day” and dismissed “apocalyptic” warnings.
“I’m proud to end this two-year experiment with heavy-handed regulation,” Mr. Carr said.
During Mr. Pai’s speech before the vote, security guards entered the meeting room at the F.C.C. headquarters and told everyone to evacuate. Commissioners were ushered out a back door. The hearing restarted a short time later.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Cecilia Kang