Republicans ruled the day at the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday as the agency purged two-year-old Obama-era net neutrality protections against throttling internet traffic, calling them superfluous and a failed experiment.
Along partisan lines and with sharp political rhetoric, the commissioners voted 3-2 to reclassify the internet from a utility to an "information service," and shift consumer protection over broadband services to the Federal Trade Commission. The vote broadly deregulates the internet and likely will lead to challenges in the federal courts, a possible eventual reversal under a Democratic-controlled FCC, or legislation, government officials and others say.
Consumer advocates — who viewed the vote as a giveaway to corporations such as Comcast — also say it could lead to higher prices for broadband services.
The vote culminates swift action this year by Ajit Pai, the Republican commissioner who was appointed by President Barack Obama and promoted by President Trump to head the agency, to roll back what he considered to be heavy-handed rules. Pai said Wednesday that fewer regulations will lead to more internet investment and innovation.
While Comcast, Verizon, and other big telecom companies lobbied hard for deregulation, critics staged national protests and even picketed Pai's house in Virginia. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said Wednesday that he will "sue to stop the illegal rollback of net neutrality."
He and 17 other Democratic attorneys general, including Pennsylvania's Josh Shapiro, have said the FCC public record leading to the new rules appeared to be laced with fake comments and stolen email addresses. Based on the FCC docket, more than 23 million Americans submitted comments, an unrealistically high number that is equivalent to 1 in 14 Americans. The FCC has acknowledged irregularities with the public comments but says they did not influence the agency's decision. Shapiro said Thursday that he also plans to "take legal action to protect net neutrality."
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said during Thursday's open meeting that the "soon-to-be-toothless FCC is handing the keys to the internet … to multibillion-dollar corporations."
The "agency that is supposed to protect you is abandoning you," she said.
The second Democratic commissioner who voted no, Jessica Rosenworcel, said, "This decision puts the FCC on the wrong side of history." Rosenworcel called Thursday's action "a stain on the agency."
"The FCC is not killing the internet," Commissioner Brendan Carr said before voting for the new rules. "This is a great day for consumers, innovators, and freedom." He said existing law already protects consumers.
Fellow Commissioner Michael O'Rielly said he did not believe that Comcast or others would risk the "PR nightmare" of blocking websites or otherwise interfering with internet traffic. "The legend of a cable company breaking the internet … isn't reality," he said.
Comcast, one of the nation's largest broadband providers, whose stock rose 1.4 percent to $39.12 on Thursday, has sought to calm customers' worries over the loss of net neutrality protections.
"This is not the end of net neutrality," Comcast executive David L. Cohen said in a blog post. "Despite repeated distortions and biased information, as well as misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors, our internet service is not going to change. Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open internet today, tomorrow, and in the future. Period."
Cohen added that "consumers will remain fully protected. We have repeatedly stated and reiterate today, that we do not and will not block, throttle, or discriminate against lawful content."
Some have said the FCC changes could lead to a two-tier internet of fast and slow lanes that could hurt smaller companies or consumers.
Comcast is not creating "fast lanes," Cohen said. "We've not entered into paid prioritization agreements and have no plans to do so."
Some believe the FCC vote could bring Republicans and Democrats together to craft a legislative solution on how to regulate the internet. Comcast itself called for legislative action Thursday.
Sen. John Thune (R. S.D.), chairman of the powerful Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, said in a statement Wednesday that "there is obviously immense passion that follows the issue of net neutrality. As I have stated repeatedly, and I will say again today, congressional action is the only way to solve the endless back-and-forth on net neutrality rules that we've seen over the past several years." He called on Democrats to work with Republicans to craft legislation.