The laws governing an open internet may not be laws much longer.
On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission voted 2-1 on a proposal to strip out the existing regulations that govern net neutrality, or the concept that all internet traffic must be treated equally. This is an initial vote that opens the issue up for comments. The FCC will entertain public input until August, and hold a final vote later this year. But given the Republican majority on the commission, a vote to remove the existing rules is a virtual certainty.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed to head the commission by President Donald Trump, voted alongside fellow Republican Michael O'Rielly in support of the proposal, while Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn voted against it. There are typically five members on the commission, but two have yet to be appointed.
Today's vote represents the first significant step toward dismantling regulations that have been in place since 2015, potentially changing the way the internet works. Proponents (Democrats, internet companies and consumer advocacy groups) argue that the rules were necessary to ensure that internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast couldn't play favorites or charge more for faster access, while critics (Republicans, ISPs) said the rules were too onerous and stifled innovation and investment in infrastructure.
This move has been a pet project of Pai. He argued that Title II, a component of the existing rules that places the internet service providers under utility-style rules, isn't necessary.
"The internet wasn't broken in 2015," he said during the FCC meeting. "We were not living in a digital dystopia."
Public policy group Consumer Union called the vote "chilling."
"Eliminating the Open Internet Order takes away the internet's level playing field and would allow a select few corporations to choose winners and losers, preventing consumers from accessing the content that they want, when they want it," said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union.
Democratic Sen. Al Franken of Minnesota called it "a major step toward destroying the internet as we know it."
The issue flared up over the past few weeks after Pai floated the proposal ahead of the vote. It was enough to spur comedian John Oliver to devote a segment to net neutrality, imploring viewers of his show "Last Week Tonight" to send their comments in support of the rules. The show even created the shortcut www.gofccyourself.com to help viewers bypass at least five steps to reach the correct comments page.
The FCC website shut down shortly after, but the agency blamed it on botnets that sent a flood of false comments.
Comcast and trade groups like the Telecommunications Industry Association gave Thursday's vote a thumbs-up.
"We applaud Chairman Pai and Commissioner O'Rielly for remaining focused on creating a light touch regulatory environment that is pro-consumer, pro-investment and pro-innovation, especially with the present partisan political rhetoric and debate," David Cohen, chief diversity officer for Comcast, said in a blog post.
The internet service providers had previously mounted a legal challenge to the rules, but a federal appeals court last year upheld the FCC's 2015 regulations, and last week it threw out a request to rehear the case.
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