Amid protests, the Federal Communications Commission voted along party lines Thursday to begin the process of formally setting new net neutrality rules for online traffic that would allow broadband providers to charge companies for faster delivery of their content.
The 3-2 vote was a victory for FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, who is pushing the plan after a federal court in January tossed out the agency's previous rules.
A Democrat who took over in November, Wheeler triggered outrage among public interest groups, online activists and many liberals with a plan that would for the first time allow the possibility of so-called pay-for-priority deals.
Wheeler said his plan has been misconstrued and that it would not allow broadband providers to block any legal content or slow down connections in a way that is commercially unreasonable.
"Personally, I don't like the idea that the Internet can be divided into haves and have-nots and I will work to see that doesn't happen," Wheeler said.
His plan also would create an ombudsperson to act as a watchdog for consumers and entrepreneurs.
"I will not allow the asset of an open Internet to be compromised," Wheeler said.
He and other FCC officials stressed that Wednesday's vote only started a formal, four-month public comment period and no rules were adopted.
"The feedback up until now has been nothing short of astounding but the real call to action begins after this vote is taken," said Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who supports tougher rules on broadband providers.
Wheeler made some changes to his proposal this week to secure the votes of Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel, the commission's other two Democrats.
They both publicly thanked him for the changes, which included asking whether pay-for-priority deals should be banned outright and if the FCC should subject broadband providers to stricter utility-like regulations.
Still, Rosenworcel criticized the process as rushed.
She had called last week for a one-month delay in Wednesday's vote in response to the sharp public outcry in recent weeks to Wheeler's proposal, which critics have said would allow broadband providers to create paid fast lanes on the Internet.
"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," Rosenworcel said.
"So I support network neutrality. But I believe the process that got us to this rule-making today is flawed. I would have preferred a delay. I think we moved too fast to be fair."
Dozens of protesters gathered outside the FCC's headquarters Thursday morning and three had to be removed from the meeting after jumping up at the start and loudly telling commissioners they needed to protect the Internet.
"You're trying to destroy 1st Amendment rights to free speech and free press," one protester said before being escorted out by security.
The cornerstone of net neutrality, a decade-old concept that counts President Obama among its earliest political backers, is that all legal Internet content should be treated equally.
Net neutrality supporters argue that allowing broadband providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon to set up high-speed toll lanes on the Internet will lead to higher prices for consumers and endanger free speech.
"I think net neutrality is vital to preserving the Internet as we know it and preserving the free speech we have on it," said Morgan LaRocca, 29, of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., who was among dozens of protestors who gathered outside the FCC's headquarters Wednesday to urge that it not abandon net neutrality.
The process would involve soliciting public comment, with a goal of passing new rules by the end of the year.
LaRocca and other protesters oppose Wheeler's plan to allow so-called pay-for-priority arrangements. They want the FCC to subject Internet service providers to tougher, utility-like regulation, similar to phone companies, so they would not be able to set up high-speed online toll lanes.
Groups such as Fight for the Future, Demand Progress and Free Press have organized protests and petition drives pushing the FCC to abandon Wheeler's proposal and authorize tougher regulation of broadband providers.
In response to the backlash, Wheeler revised his proposal this week, specifically asking for public feedback on whether pay-for-priority deals should be banned and if the FCC should reclassify broadband providers for stricter regulation under Title 2 of the nation's telecommunications law.
The chief executives of many of those providers, including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, wrote to Wheeler this week warning against the tougher common-carrier regulations. They said those rules "would impose great costs, allowing unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy."
Most Republicans also oppose such a move, including the FCC's two GOP commissioners, Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly. The voted against the proposal Thursday.
"Every American who cares about the future of the Internet should be wary about five unelected officials deciding its fate," Pai said. He wanted the FCC to turn to Congress for guidance after the agency twice before has crafted rules that were tossed out by federal judges.
"Getting the future of the Internet right is more important than getting this done right now," Pai said.
Protesters worry that if broadband providers are allowed to charge for faster content delivery, it would squelch free speech on the Internet for average Americans.