The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines on Thursday to repeal landmark 2015 rules aimed at ensuring a free and open internet, setting up a court fight over a move that could recast the digital landscape.
The approval of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal marked a victory for internet service providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications and hands them power over what content consumers can access.
Democrats, Hollywood and companies like Google parent Alphabet and Facebook had urged Pai, a Republican appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, to keep the Obama-era rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content.
The meeting, held amid protests online and in front of the FCC headquarters in Washington, was evacuated before the vote for about 10 minutes due to an unspecified security threat, and resumed after law enforcement with sniffer dogs checked the room.
White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders told reporters the administration "supports the FCC’s efforts. At the same time, the White House certainly has and always will support a free and fair internet."
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said in a statement he will lead a multi-state lawsuit to challenge the reversal.
Shares of Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft moved lower after the vote.
Pai has argued that the 2015 rules were heavy handed and stifled competition and innovation among service providers.
"The internet wasn't broken in 2015. We weren't living in a digital dystopia," he said on Thursday.
The FCC voted 3-2 to repeal the rules.
Consumers are unlikely to see immediate changes, but smaller startups worry the lack of restrictions could drive up costs or lead to their content being blocked.
Internet service providers say they will not block or throttle legal content but may engage in paid prioritisation. They argue that the largely unregulated internet functioned well in the two decades before the 2015 order.
Still, Democrats have pointed to polls showing a repeal is deeply unpopular and say they will prevail in protecting the rules, either in the courts or in U.S. Congress.
Immediately after the vote, Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, said he and 15 other senators planned to introduce a resolution to undo the FCC action and restore the net neutrality rules.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in a written dissent released on Thursday that the decision grants internet providers "extraordinary new power" from the FCC.
"They have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic. And now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead," she said.
Several state attorneys general said before the vote they would work to oppose the ruling, citing issues with the public comment period. Other critics have said they will consider challenging what they see as weaker enforcement.
The 2015 rules were intended to give consumers equal access to web content and prevent broadband providers from favouring their own content. Those practices are now allowed as long as they are disclosed.
The broadband industry cheered the move. USTelecom, a lobbying group representing internet providers and broadband companies said after the vote they had "renewed confidence" to make network investments, particularly in rural communities.
On the other side, the trade group Internet Association, whose members include content providers Alphabet, Facebook and Pandora Media, said "the fight isn't over" and that it was weighing legal options in a lawsuit against the FCC order.
A University of Maryland poll had found more than 80 percent of respondents opposed a repeal. The survey of 1,077 registered voters was conducted online by the Program for Public Consultation from Dec. 6-8.
Jesse Ferguson, a Democratic strategist, said polls have found young people are favouring Democrats in the latest elections and that the net neutrality issue could be used to gather support in the 2018 midterm elections.
"Net neutrality is the latest data point for voters that the administration is more interested in doing what big companies want them to do, then what people think is in their interest. That's a narrative that is politically toxic for Republicans,” he said.
(Reporting by David Shepardson, Diane Bartz, Katanga Johnson; Writing by Chris Sanders; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Meredith Mazzilli)