In a landmark decision for the future of the Internet, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday approved tough net neutrality regulations to oversee online traffic.
The new rules prohibit Internet service providers from discriminating against legal content flowing through their wired or wireless networks, such as by charging websites for faster delivery of video and other data to consumers.
The vote came after years of debate -- sharply partisan in recent weeks -- about how best to protect the Internet as online access becomes more vital to everyday life and as the industry that provides high-speed service continues to consolidate.
"Today, after a decade of debate, in an open, robust year-long process, we finally have legally sustainable rules to ensure that the Internet stays fast, fair and open," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the architect of the plan, told reporters after the vote.
Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable TV and wireless industries who has worked on technology issues in Washington for nearly 40 years, said Thursday was "the proudest day of my public policy life."
The FCC's final vote to approve his plan was greeted with cheers by more than 300 people packed into the agency's meeting room. Many of them were consumer advocates and digital rights supporters who had pushed the FCC for years to take strong steps to oversee the Internet.
"This was a vote not just for Internet freedom, but for freedom and democracy," declared former FCC member Michael Copps, now a special advisor for public interest group Common Cause.
But the FCC was divided along party lines on the issue, reflecting strong opposition by Republicans who accused President Obama of improperly interfering with the independent agency's deliberations to enact policies he has pushed since his days in the U.S. Senate.
Republicans on the FCC and in Congress blasted the new rules as risking burdening the Internet economy with heavy-handed government regulation.
"Overzealous government bureaucrats should keep their hands off the Internet," said House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio).
The vote was 3-2, with the commission's Democratic majority backing a plan that puts broadband providers in the same legal category as more highly regulated conventional telephone companies.
Wheeler has promised a modernized, light-touch regulatory approach that would exempt Internet service from many of the tougher provisions, particularly rate regulation, permitted by its new designation under Title 2 of the telecommunications law.
"The Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet. It's simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field," Wheeler said in voting for the proposal. "The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules."
He said the new rules and classification were "no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the 1st Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech."
FCC member Jessica Rosenworcel, who voted for the regulations, said: "We cannot have a two-tiered Internet with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind."
"We cannot have gatekeepers who tell us what we can and cannot do and where we can and cannot go online," she said.
Ajit Pai, one of two Republicans on the FCC, said the proposal approved Thursday abandoned 20 years of bipartisan consensus "to let the Internet grow free from utility-style regulation."
"It seizes unilateral authority to regulate Internet conduct, to direct where Internet service providers make their investments and to determine what service plans will be available to the American public," he said.
The FCC's vote culminates a decade of efforts by Internet companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc., public interest groups, digital rights advocates and key Democrats, including President Obama, to enact the toughest possible rules to protect consumers.
Chad Dickerson, chief executive of Etsy, an online marketplace for handmade and vintage goods, said his company would never have grown from a start-up had it not been for an open Internet. Many of the people who sell items on Etsy urged the FCC to enact tough regulations.
"Without strong rules to prevent discrimination online, the innovation economy would suffer," he told the commissioners at the meeting. "Thank you for voting to protect the Internet as an engine of opportunity the likes of which we have never seen."
However, Republicans, free-market advocates and telecommunications companies, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., have called the rules a solution in search of a problem that risks damaging the Internet economy.
They said that the Internet has thrived outside of strict government oversight, and they warned that burdensome regulations could hinder online innovation and investment in expanded broadband networks.
"While I see no need for net neutrality rules, I am far more troubled by the dangerous course that the commission is now charting on Title 2 and the consequences it will have for broadband investment, edge providers and consumers," said FCC member Michael O'Rielly, who voted against the measure.
Pai saw the White House behind Wheeler's proposal.
"Put simply, President Obama's plan to regulate the Internet is not the solution to a problem. His plan is the problem," said Pai, who accused Obama of improperly influencing the FCC's actions.
In November, Obama publicly called for the agency to take many of the steps it did Thursday. But Wheeler said he had decided to go in that direction in the summer and there was no improper White House influence.
"I'm quite comfortable that we made this decision with independence and wisdom and based on the record," he said.
Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, criticized the vote and warned of legal challenges but stopped short of saying the company would sue.
"We have never argued there should be no regulation in this area, simply that there should be smart regulation," Cicconi said.
"What doesn't make sense, and has never made sense, is to take a regulatory framework developed for Ma Bell in the 1930s and make her great grandchildren, with technologies and options undreamed of 80 years ago, live under it," he said.
Verizon highlighted its view that the FCC was taking an outdated approach by handing out copies of a news release typed on a 1930s-era typewriter saying "it is likely that history will judge today's actions as misguided."
Michael Powell, president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Assn. trade group, said Congress should overrule the FCC's net neutrality approach with more restrained regulations.
And Powell, who headed the FCC in 2002 when it specifically decided not to classify broadband under Title 2, hinted of the legal challenges to come.
"The FCC has taken us in a distressing direction," he said. "We must now look to other branches of government for a more balanced resolution."
Telecom firms said they support the principle of net neutrality but not the FCC's approach, and they have promised to sue to overturn the regulations.
Legal challenges led federal judges to toss out two earlier FCC attempts to enact net neutrality rules, and new lawsuits could leave the matter unsettled for three years or more.
The FCC said it chose to take the controversial step of reclassifying broadband providers for utility-like regulation -- reversing the agency's 2002 decision -- because the move would give the net neutrality rules the best chance of withstanding a legal challenge.