The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday overturned "net neutrality," the regulations ensuring that internet service providers such as AT&T (T), Comcast (CMCSA) and Verizon (VZ) treat all website and content equally.
The meeting was charged, reflecting the public controversy over whether to preserve or eliminate the Obama-era rules. As if to punctuate the drama, attendees at the FCC hearing were forced to abruptly clear the room over unspecified security concerns before Chair Ajit Pai cast his vote.
The debate ran along party lines, with the commission's Republican members voting to unravel the 2015 net neutrality rules and its two Democratic members voting against the measure. In casting the deciding vote, which put the final tally at 3-2 in favor of overturning net neutrality. Pai said, "The sky is not falling, consumers will remain protected."
While internet service companies say consumers won't notice a change, they have also lobbied for net neutrality's overturn, arguing that fewer regulations will allow them to innovate and deliver new services to consumers. Yet net neutrality has become a rallying cry for consumers regardless of political affiliation, with many expressing fears that the end of net neutrality will dampen free speech, create higher costs for consumers and allow ISPs to control what services they use on the internet.
"We will have a Cheshire cat version of net neutrality," said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who voted against the measure. "We will be in a world where regulatory substance fades to black and all that is left is a broadband provider's toothy grin."
In her comments, which called a "eulogy" to net neutrality, she added, "What saddens me the most today is that the agency that is supposed to protect you is actually abandoning you."
The proposal will not only roll back restrictions that keep broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from blocking or collecting tolls from services they don't like, it would bar states from imposing their own rules.
Overturning net neutrality won't lead to the problems its supporters suggest, said FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr, who voted in favor of the repeal.
"This is no free-for-all," he said. "This is no Thunderdome. The FCC is not killing the internet."
Pai's supporters say those concerns are overblown, but critics contend the end of net neutrality could create a tiered internet system that would hurt poorer Americans and small businesses, while bolstering the coffers of big businesses like Comcast and Verizon.
That growing public movement suggests that the FCC vote won't be the end of the issue. New York's attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, announced he was launching a "multistate lawsuit" against the FCC's action. Opponents of the move are planning other legal challenges, and some net-neutrality supporters hope to ride that wave of public opinion into the 2018 elections.
Pai, a former Verizon attorney who was appointed by President Donald Trump, says his plan eliminates unnecessary regulation that stood in the way of connecting more Americans to the internet. Under his proposal, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing service or offer faster speeds to companies who pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says his plan eliminates unnecessary regulation that stood in the way of connecting more Americans to the internet. Under his proposal, the Comcasts and AT&Ts of the world will be free to block rival apps, slow down competing service or offer faster speeds to companies who pay up. They just have to post their policies online or tell the FCC.
The change also axes consumer protections, bars state laws that contradict the FCC's approach, and largely transfers oversight of internet service to another agency, the Federal Trade Commission.
After the FCC released its plan in late November, well-known telecom and media analysts Craig Moffett and Michael Nathanson wrote in a note to investors that the FCC plan dismantles "virtually all of the important tenets of net neutrality itself."
That could result in phone and cable companies forcing people to pay more to do what they want online. The technology community, meanwhile, fears that additional online tolls could hurt startups who can't afford to pay them - and, over the long term, diminish innovation.
"We're a small company. We're about 40 people. We don't have the deep pockets of Google, Netflix, Amazon to just pay off ISPs to make sure consumers can access our service," said Andrew McCollum, CEO of streaming-TV service Philo.
Portugal may offer insight into what types of plans Americans could see without net neutrality. Services slice and dice programs and data by types of applications, such as "messaging" or "music." While Portugal is bound by the European Union's net neutrality laws, it does have some freedom in "zero-rating" plans, or providing data from certain sites or services that might be unlimited as part of a monthly package.
Broadband providers pooh-pooh what they characterize as misinformation and irrational fears. "I genuinely look forward to the weeks, months, years ahead when none of the fire and brimstone predictions comes to pass," said Jonathan Spalter, head of the trade group USTelecom, on a call with reporters Wednesday.
But some of these companies have suggested they could charge some internet services more to reach customers, saying it could allow for better delivery of new services like telemedicine. Comcast said Wednesday it has no plans for such agreements.
Cable and mobile providers have also been less scrupulous in the past. In 2007, for example, the Associated Press found Comcast was blocking or throttling some file-sharing. AT&T blocked Skype and other internet calling services on the iPhone until 2009. They also aren't backing away from subtler forms of discrimination that favor their own services.
There's also a problem with the FCC's plan to leave most complaints about deceptive behavior and privacy to the FTC. A pending court case could leave the FTC without the legal authority to oversee most big broadband providers. That could leave both agencies hamstrung if broadband companies hurt their customers or competitors.
Critics like Democratic FTC commissioner Terrell McSweeny argue that the FTC won't be as effective in policing broadband companies as the FCC, which has expertise in the issue and has the ability to lay down hard-and-fast rules against certain practices.
Moffett and Nathanson, the analysts, said that they suspect the latest FCC rules to be short-lived. "These changes will likely be so immensely unpopular that it would be shocking if they are allowed to stand for long," they wrote.
There have been hundreds of public protests against Pai's plan and more than 1 million calls to Congress through a pro-net neutrality coalition's site. Smaller tech websites such as Reddit, Kickstarter and Mozilla put dramatic overlays on their sites Tuesday in support of net neutrality. Twitter on Wednesday was promoting #NetNeutrality as a trending topic. Other big tech companies were more muted in their support.
Public-interest groups Free Press and Public Knowledge are already promising to go after Pai's rules in the courts. There may also be attempts to legislate net neutrality rules, which the telecom industry supports. Sen. John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, on Tuesday called for "bipartisan legislation" on net neutrality that would "enshrine protections for consumers with the backing of law."
But that will be tough going. Democrats criticized previous Republican attempts at legislation during the Obama administration for gutting the FCC's enforcement abilities. Republicans would likely be interested in proposing even weaker legislation now, and Democrats are unlikely to support it if so.
Some Democrats prefer litigation and want to use Republican opposition to net neutrality as a campaign issue in 2018. "Down the road Congress could act to put in place new rules, but with Republicans in charge of the House, Senate, and White House the likelihood of strong enforceable rules are small," Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, wrote on Reddit last week. "Maybe after the 2018 elections, we will be in a stronger position to get that done."
A future FCC could also rewrite net-neutrality regulation to be tougher on the phone and cable industry. That could bring a whole new cycle of litigation by broadband companies.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.