The U.S.’s top Internet overseer today voted to bar Internet providers from charging some companies more than others for faster delivery of movies, music and other web content.
The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 along party lines to treat Internet service providers such as Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner Cable much like traditional phone companies. The classification will allow the FCC to impose so-called open Internet rules, also referred to as net neutrality, which require both cable and wireless Internet providers to treat all web content the same.
The new rules will prevent the companies that control the delivery of web content to homes and businesses from blocking or slowing online traffic, and charging companies like Netflix to more quickly deliver their online services to customers. Net neutrality supporters said this paid prioritization would lead to a two-tiered Internet and stifle innovation and online startups, which couldn’t afford charges for the faster service.
The historic vote is a huge defeat to the giant telecommunications companies, which are among the most powerful special interests in Washington, D.C., and have spent hundreds of millions of dollars on lobbying, political giving and influence campaigns over the past several years to fight net neutrality.
“This is, overwhelmingly, the biggest defeat for vested interests I can recall in my 15 years working in this sector,” Harold Feld, a senior vice president at Public Knowledge, a consumer advocacy group in Washington that supported net neutrality, said in an email. “It is a thing that should not be possible, and which therefore nobody but a handful of us believed could happen.”
Last year, the biggest broadband providers and associations that represent them spent $88 million alone on lobbying Congress and federal agencies on all kinds of issues, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
AT&T and Verizon have said they will sue to overturn the ruling.
The FCC also voted 3-2 along party lines to preempt state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevent cities in those states that operate their own broadband networks from expanding their services into neighboring areas. The ruling only affects Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, the cities that filed petitions asking the commission to preempt the laws. But the ruling makes it easier for other cities in those states, as well as cities in 18 other states that restrict municipal broadband, to ask the FCC to overturn the laws.
The telecom giants have also spent millions and to influence state laws restricting municipal broadband.
The one-two punch delivered by the FCC against the telecommunications industry today is a reversal.
Just a couple of months ago, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler had been working on a lighter regulatory net neutrality proposal that would have allowed companies to pay extra for priority access. But in November, President Barack Obama released a video calling on the independent agency to classify Internet providers as a utility.
Google, Facebook, Netflix and other Internet content providers supported strong net neutrality rules. That, taken with the nearly 4 million comments the FCC received, the majority of which were in support of net neutrality, led Wheeler to choose to reclassify Internet providers as common carriers, like telephone companies, under what is known as Title II of the Communications Act.