WASHINGTON — Federal regulators voted on Thursday to repeal Obama-era net neutrality rules for internet traffic — a major victory for telecommunications companies and another milestone for the Republican deregulation push under President Donald Trump.
The 3-2 party-line vote by the Federal Communications Commission tears down the controversial utilitylike oversight of internet service providers that was put in place by Democrats in 2015 to try to ensure the uninhibited flow of data online.
That strict regulatory structure would largely give way to market forces. After a repeal of net neutrality rules, internet service providers would be required only to disclose their online practices, with the Federal Trade Commission policing them for anti-competitive practices.
Republicans said they are simply restoring government oversight of the internet to where it was before 2015, reestablishing the light-touch regulatory approach that allowed the online ecosystem to flourish and develop into an economic force.
"The internet is the greatest free-market innovation in history," Ajit Pai, the Republican who took over as FCC chairman in January and pushed the repeal, said before the vote.
"Entrepreneurs and innovators guided the internet far better than the heavy hand of government ever could have," Pai said.
Underscoring the intensity surrounding net neutrality, Pai's comments were interrupted when FCC security ordered the packed meeting room cleared. The meeting was suspended for about 10 minutes while the room was swept after an apparent bomb threat.
Pai and other opponents of the net neutrality rules said they have led to reduced investment in broadband networks — a point supporters dispute.
Democrats — urged on by consumer advocates, digital rights groups and online giants such as Amazon, Google and Facebook — said the tougher federal oversight is needed because the internet's increasingly vital role in business and daily life is vulnerable to exploitation by telecom companies.
"As a result of today's misguided action, our broadband providers will get extraordinary new powers," said Jessica Rosenworcel, one of two Democrats on the five-member FCC who voted against the repeal.
"They will have the power to block websites, the power to throttle services and the power to censor online content," she said. "They will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have a pay-for-play arrangement and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road."
The FCC's net neutrality rules prohibit AT&T Inc., Charter Communications Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and other broadband and wireless internet service providers from selling faster delivery of certain data, slowing speeds for specific video streams and other content, and blocking or otherwise discriminating against any legal online material.
To enforce the rules, the FCC classified broadband as a more highly regulated utility-like service under Title 2 of federal telecommunications law.
AT&T, other telecom companies and industry trade groups sued to block the rules, arguing that the FCC exceeded its authority in approving the regulations. But a federal appeals court upheld the regulations last year.
Supporters of net neutrality are expected to file suit to try to halt the repeal plan, arguing that the FCC's about-face just two years after the regulations were enacted is an "arbitrary and capricious" move that violates the Administrative Procedures Act.
Telecom companies said they are committed to the principles of net neutrality and have no plans to change their practices.
"None of the fire-and-brimstone predictions will come to pass," said Michael Powell, president of NCTA — the Internet & Television Assn., a trade group that includes cable companies. "The nation's broadband providers have lived the principles of net neutrality for years."
But the companies have hedged on whether they would start charging additional fees to transport video streams or other content at a higher speed through their network in a practice known as paid prioritization.
Pai has said paid prioritization could accelerate the development of autonomous vehicles and home health monitoring, which would need reliably fast service.
But net neutrality supporters worry telecom companies will set up toll lanes on the internet, cutting deals with some websites to deliver their content faster and squeezing out startups and small companies that lack the money to pay for faster service.
Thursday's vote was the latest battle in a war that dates to 2003 over how to ensure the internet remains an open network. Over the years, net neutrality has become a rallying cry for liberals and online activists concerned that telecom companies would become powerful gatekeepers for the communications platform of the 21st century.
Dozens of protesters rallied outside the FCC's headquarters Thursday morning, and demonstrations urging the agency to keep its net neutrality regulations have taken place across the country and online in recent months. Pai's home in the Washington suburbs has been targeted, and he has said his family has been harassed.
Nearly 24 million online comments on both sides of the issue flooded the FCC this year as it reconsidered its net neutrality regulations. Highlighting the contentious stakes in the fight, millions of those comments appear to be fakes, with some originating from Russia.
Former President Barack Obama was a major advocate of net neutrality regulations, and the repeal is another step by Republicans to dismantle his legacy.
Obama was an early net neutrality supporter as a senator, and, in an unusual move for a president, injected himself directly into the FCC's consideration of the regulations in 2014 by publicly urging the independent agency to install the utilitylike oversight of telecom companies.
The FCC, then controlled by Democrats, approved the rules in early 2015 in a 3-2 vote.
Trump's election last year switched the FCC majority to Republicans. Trump tapped Pai, a commissioner who was an outspoken opponent of the net neutrality rules, to be chairman.
Even before Pai was selected, he said he wanted to "fire up the weed whacker" to eliminate burdensome regulations and predicted that the net neutrality rules' "days are numbered."
The fight now will shift to Capitol Hill.
Supporters of the rules plan to urge Congress to halt the FCC's repeal, a move unlikely to succeed with Republican majorities in the House and Senate. But there is bipartisan support for net neutrality, and some lawmakers want to pass net neutrality legislation that would enshrine some of the principles in law.
That would give the FCC the specific authority to enforce them without using utility-like oversight that some fear could lead to rate regulations and other burdensome regulations. Legislation also would end what both sides of the debate call a merry-go-round of different FCC approaches to the issue depending on which party controls the agency's majority.