NEW YORK (AP) -The Federal Communications Commission has voted on party lines to undo sweeping Obama-era “net neutrality” rules that guaranteed equal access to internet.
The agency’s Democratic commissioners dissented in the 3-2 vote Thursday.
The FCC’s new rules could usher in big changes in how Americans use the internet. The agency got rid of rules that barred companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon from playing favorites with internet apps and sites.
The broadband industry promises that the internet experience isn’t going to change. But protests have erupted online and in the streets as everyday Americans worry that cable and phone companies will be able to control what they see and do online.
Net-neutrality supporters plan legal challenges. Some Democrats hope to ride that wave of public opinion into the 2018 elections.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who says his plan to repeal net neutrality will eliminate unnecessary regulation, called the internet the “greatest free-market innovation in history.” He added that it “certainly wasn’t heavy-handed government regulation” that’s been responsible for the internet’s “phenomenal” development. “Quite the contrary,” he says.
“What is the FCC doing today?” he asked. “Quite simply, we are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence.”
Broadband providers, Pai says, will have stronger incentives to build networks, especially in underserved areas. Ending 2015 net neutrality rules, he says, will lead to a “free, more open internet.”
“The sky is not falling, consumers will remain protected and the internet will continue to thrive,” Pai says.
The FCC meeting was abruptly halted shortly before 1 p.m. during chairman Ajit Pai’s remarks and before the vote on net neutrality could take place. Pai said “on the advice of security, we need to take a brief break.”
Then the meetings’ live feed cut out. Representatives for the FCC could not immediately be reached for comment via email and phone.
Security officials evacuated the hearing room and searched it, then allowed everyone back in.
The meeting and livestream have since resumed.
Michael O’Rielly, a Republican commissioner appointed by President Barack Obama, says he supports the overturning of net-neutrality rules, calling the FCC’s approach a “well-reasoned and soundly justified order.”
O’Rielly says he is not persuaded that “heavy handed” rules are needed to prevent “imaginary harm.”
The internet, he says, “has functioned without net neutrality rules for far longer than it has without them.” The decision, he says, “will not break the internet.”
Addressing criticism that the FCC’s process was tainted by a large number of fake comments, O’Rielly said the agency is “required to consider and respond to significant comments.”
Some comments, he said, to laughter in the room, “referred to me as a potato.” He clarified that these comments had also no bearing on the agency’s vote.