WASHINGTON — Federal regulators voted Thursday to allow internet providers to speed up service for websites they favor — and block or slow down others — in a decision repealing landmark Obama-era regulations overseeing broadband companies such as AT&T and Verizon.
The move by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to deregulate the telecom and cable industries was a prominent example of the policy shifts under President Donald Trump and a major setback for consumer groups, tech companies and Democrats who had lobbied heavily against the decision.
The 3-2 vote, which was along party lines, enabled the FCC’s Republican chairman, Ajit Pai, to follow through on his promise to repeal the government’s 2015 net-neutrality rules, which required internet providers to treat all websites, large and small, equally. The agency also rejected some of its own authority over the broadband industry in a bid to stymie future FCC officials who might seek to reverse the Republican-led ruling.
The result was a redrawing of the FCC’s oversight powers at a time of rapid transformation in the media and technology sectors.
“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 vote has also cast a spotlight on Pai, who has become one of the faces of deregulation in the Trump era. On the eve of the vote, Pai released a video mocking critics that featured him dressed as Santa, wielding a lightsaber and clutching a fidget spinner to defend his decision to repeal the net-neutrality rules.
“Within a generation, we have gone from email as the killer app to high-definition video streaming,” Pai told an audience at the FCC before of the pivotal vote. “Entrepreneurs and innovators guided the internet far better than the heavy hand of government ever could have.”
Consumers might not feel the effects of the decision right away. But eventually they could begin to see packages and pricing schemes that would steer them toward some content over others, critics of the FCC’s vote argued.
For example, under the Obama-era rules, Verizon was not allowed to favor Yahoo and AOL, which it owns, by blocking Google or charging the search giant extra fees to connect to customers. Under the new rules, that would be legal, as long as Verizon disclosed it.
“You and I and everyone else who uses the internet for personal use will see some changes in pricing models,” Glenn O’Donnell, an industry analyst at the research firm Forrester, wrote in an email. “For most of us, I expect we will pay more. Service bundles (e.g., social-media package, streaming-video package) will likely be bolted on to basic transport for things like web surfing and email.”
Pai’s opponents vowed to wage a fierce campaign. The hacking group Anonymous said it will “make these men realize what a terrible mistake they made,” threatening to “come after” Pai and his allies. Opponents of the FCC action said they would take the agency to court. New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, said Thursday that he intends to file a multistate lawsuit “to stop the FCC’s illegal rollback of net neutrality.” Washington state Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he plans to do the same.
A legal challenge would extend the torturous journey of a consequential technology policy that began in 2004 under President George W. Bush and that has been approved by the FCC in multiple incarnations, only to be struck down or reversed later. Both sides have well-heeled companies and sophisticated lobbying operations, with cable and telecom groups opposing restrictions on their activities and highflying tech giants and startups seeking such rules.
“For the last decade, we’ve been on a regulatory roller coaster,” said Jack Nadler, a partner at the law firm Squire Patton Boggs. “We are likely looking at two or three more years of uncertainty. And then there is the 2020 presidential election, which could lead to yet another policy upheaval.”