Federal officials are set to enact the first broad regulations covering high-speed Internet access amid a heated debate about whether the rules would preserve the online world or destroy it.
The vote by the Federal Communications Commission is the culmination of more than five years of battling over how best to preserve the free flow of information that has transformed the Internet from an obscure government network to an economic powerhouse.
But approval at a meeting Tuesday is likely to enrage congressional Republicans, who have warned the FCC's Democratic majority not to enact any Internet regulations. And the regulations are expected to be challenged in court.
The issue, known as net neutrality, has drawn strong support from Democrats, online activists and large Internet companies such as Google Inc. that advocate more open access to the Internet.
On the opposite side, Republicans, free-market advocates and telecommunications providers argue that such regulation isn't needed and would squelch investment and limit innovations.
The new regulations would prohibit telecommunications companies that provide high-speed Internet service from blocking access by customers to any legal content, applications or services.
It would place tougher restrictions on wired Internet service from cable and phone companies than it would on wireless carriers providing access over the airwaves to an increasing number of people surfing the Web on smart phones and other mobile devices.
The goal of the regulations is to prevent powerful phone and cable companies from rigging the online marketplace by giving priority to their own offerings or those of deep-pocketed business partners, such as TV shows or movies streaming through the Internet, or by slowing down those of competitors.
"We have an historic opportunity to make sure this dynamic Internet technology reaches its full potential to create opportunity for every citizen," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said this month as he began drafting proposed rules.
"At issue is who will control access to the online experiences of consumers — consumers themselves or Big Phone and Big Cable gatekeepers," he said.
Genachowski, a Democrat who had worked in the technology industry, has been working to enact the regulations since he was appointed early last year by President Obama. As a senator, Obama was an early supporter of net neutrality and made it one of the issues in his 2008 presidential campaign.
Genachowski's task was made more difficult by a court decision in April striking down a less formal FCC principle that high-speed Internet providers should keep their networks open.
That case involved instances in which Comcast Corp., the nation's largest provider of high-speed Internet service, blocked some of its customers from using the popular BitTorrent technology that allows people to download videos quickly. Comcast had said it was trying to keep bandwidth hogs from slowing down the network for other users.
Genachowski pushed the FCC to act this month after Congress was unable to pass net neutrality legislation. He also had tried unsuccessfully to negotiate a deal between Web companies and Internet service providers about how content would be handled.
The other two Democrats on the five-member FCC, Michael J. Copps and Mignon Clyburn, wanted tougher regulations. But after getting Genachowski to make some changes, they both agreed Monday, with some reservations, to vote for his proposal.
"If vigilantly and vigorously implemented by the commission — and if upheld by the courts — it could represent an important milestone in the ongoing struggle to safeguard the awesome opportunity-creating power of the open Internet," Copps said.
But some activist groups were disappointed, particularly that the new regulations wouldn't be as strict on wireless Internet access.
"Instead of a rule that would protect everyone … from predatory practices of telephone and cable companies, the commission settled for much less," said Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, a digital rights group. "Consumers deserved better."
All high-speed Internet providers would be prevented from blocking any lawful content except for "reasonable" practices designed to keep their network from crashing. There are no restrictions on blocking unlawful content.
The companies also would be required to provide more information about how the networks are managed to consumers as well as to developers of online applications or devices.
But wired providers also would be prevented from unreasonably discriminating against the treatment of content flowing through their networks, such as how quickly it is delivered. Wireless providers would not have such a restriction.
Genachowski's rationale is that the capabilities of wireless networks in different parts of the country vary and companies need more flexibility in the nascent mobile Internet market.
The new rules also would allow Internet service providers to experiment with access based on how much data a customer uses, instead of the standard all-you-can-use pricing, as a way of giving consumers more choices, FCC officials said.
Telecommunications giants such as Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast have fought net neutrality, arguing that the rules aren't necessary and would make it harder to raise money to continue to spread Internet access.
AT&T Inc. said Monday that it was awaiting details of the FCC's final rules before taking a position, but noted that they appeared better than the tougher regulation many interest groups have advocated.
FCC action "would reduce regulatory uncertainty, and should encourage investment and innovation in next generation broadband services and technologies," said Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs
Most Republicans adamantly oppose any government regulation of Internet access, with some threatening to try to withhold funding to the FCC to enforce the rules.
"The Internet has flourished without needless government intervention. We should step aside and allow the staggering innovations of tomorrow to proceed," said Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who next month will become chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which oversees the FCC. He has pledged tough oversight of the issue and plans to hold hearings early next year.
Both Republicans on the FCC — Robert M. McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker — adamantly oppose the new regulations.