Net neutrality activists declare victory as US regulators approve tougher rules

New rules require that broadband providers must act in “public interest” and refrain from using “unjust or unreasonable” business practices.

Updated - December 04, 2021 11:29 pm IST

Published - February 27, 2015 08:02 am IST - WASHINGTON

Internet activists declared victory over big cable companies on Thursday, after the U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted to impose the toughest rules yet on broadband Internet providers to prevent them from creating paid fast lanes and slowing or blocking web traffic.

The 3-2 vote ushered in a new era of government oversight for an industry that has seen relatively little. It represents the biggest regulatory shakeup to U.S. telecommunications providers in almost two decades.

Net neutrality is the idea that websites or videos load at about the same speed. The new rules require that any company providing a broadband connection to a customer’s home or phone must act in the “public interest” and refrain from using “unjust or unreasonable” business practices. The goal is to prevent providers from striking deals with content providers like Google, Netflix or Twitter to move their data faster.

Industry officials and congressional Republicans fought bitterly to stave off the new regulations, which they said constitutes dangerous overreach and would eventually raise costs for consumers. The broadband industry was expected to sue.

President Barack Obama, who had come out in favour of net neutrality late 2014, portrayed the decision as a victory for democracy in the digital age. In an online letter, he thanked the millions who wrote to the FCC and spoke out on social media in support of the change.

“Today’s FCC decision will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs and it wouldn’t have happened without Americans like you,” he wrote.

Verizon, a major U.S. broadband provider, saw it differently, using the Twitter hashtag #ThrowbackThursday to draw attention to the FCC’s reliance on 1934 legislation to regulate the Internet.

For years, providers mostly agreed not to pick winners and losers among Web traffic because they didn’t want to encourage regulators to step in and because they said consumers demanded it. But that started to change around 2005, when YouTube came online and Netflix became increasingly popular. On-demand video began hogging bandwidth, and evidence surfaced that some providers were manipulating traffic without telling consumers.

By 2010, the FCC enacted open Internet rules, but the agency’s legal approach was eventually struck down in the courts. The vote on Thursday was intended by the FCC to erase any legal ambiguity by no longer classifying the Internet as an “information service” but a “telecommunications service” subject to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.

That would dramatically expand regulators’ power over the industry and hold broadband providers to the higher standard of operating in the public interest.

“Despite the cable industry’s best efforts to undermine our cause, we secured an open Internet, free from gatekeepers and corporate monopolies. We have an Internet for the people,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a progressive Internet activism group.

Republican lawmakers said they would push for legislation to reverse the action, although it was unlikely Mr. Obama would sign such a bill.

“Only action by Congress can fix the damage and uncertainty this FCC order has inflicted on the Internet,” Republican Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement.

Complicating the issue is that not every broadband provider agrees on what should be done. Sprint, for example, has said it doesn’t think the new regulations would hurt investment. AT&T, however, supports the less stringent rules previously in place by the FCC but which were struck down in court. On Thursday, a senior company official said the FCC had gone too far and could cause irreversible harm.

“Does anyone really think Washington needs yet another partisan fight? Particularly a fight around the Internet, one of the greatest engines of economic growth, investment, and innovation in history?” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs.

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