Federal regulators on Thursday took the first formal step toward repealing tough net neutrality rules enacted two years ago that imposed strict oversight of Internet service providers to ensure the unfettered flow of online content.
The move by the Federal Communications Commission — cheered on by major broadband companies and strongly opposed by consumer advocates and Democratic lawmakers — is part of a broader effort by Republicans since President Trump took office to undo regulations enacted during the Obama era.
With net neutrality supporters, including Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), protesting outside the agency's building, the Republican-controlled FCC voted 2-1 along party lines to start a formal, months-long process of dismantling the rules put in place in 2015.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the goal was "to return to the light-touch regulatory framework" that had allowed the Internet to flourish.
"The Internet was not broken in 2015. We were not living in a digital dystopia," said Pai, a Republican who voted against the rules when they were adopted.
"These utility-style regulations … are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against the flea — except that here, there was no flea," Pai said.
The net neutrality rules, enacted by a party line vote when Democrats controlled the agency, prohibit AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Charter Communications Inc. and other Internet service providers from blocking websites, slowing connection speeds and charging extra for faster delivery of certain content.
To enforce the rules, the FCC classified broadband as a more highly regulated utility-like service under Title 2 of federal telecommunications law.
Broadband providers reiterated Thursday that they are committed to the principles of net neutrality, and there have been only isolated instances of abuses over the years. But those could become more widespread without strict government oversight as high-speed Internet access becomes more vital to business and everyday life, net neutrality supporters said.
"Those net neutrality rules guarantee that gatekeepers to the Internet cannot tilt the competitive playing field," said Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.).
For example, in December, the FCC warned AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc. that they were harming competition by exempting their own video applications from customers' data caps. The practice, known as zero-rating, could make it more difficult for streaming services to compete with services owned by Internet service providers.
But shortly after Pai took over as chairman, the FCC rescinded those warnings and ended an inquiry into the practice.
"Preventing consumers from getting something for free doesn't benefit consumers," Pai said Thursday.
A vote is not expected until the fall.
In the weeks before Trump appointed him as the nation's top telecommunications regulator, Pai had promised to "fire up the weed whacker" to remove harmful regulations and declared that the "days were numbered" for the net neutrality rules.
Pai said the FCC's rules give regulators too much control over the Internet and have led to reduced investment in broadband networks — a point net neutrality supporters dispute.
On Thursday, Pai pointed to an outside study that showed the nation's 12 largest Internet service providers reduced their domestic capital investment by $3.6 billion, or 5.6%, in 2016 compared with 2014.
But Free Press, a digital rights group, released a report this week that showed total capital investments at publicly traded Internet service providers increased by 5% in the two years following enactment of the regulations compared to the two years beforehand.
The FCC is seeking public comment on its proposal to eliminate the Title 2 classification of broadband and a general conduct standard that sought to protect Internet users from future unreasonably discriminatory practices, such as abuse of zero-rating programs.
The agency also asked for input on whether it should "keep, modify or eliminate" the specific rules on blocking content, slowing connections or allowing companies to pay to prioritize delivery of their content.
The FCC began taking public comments on its website last month, and so far, more than 1.6 million people have weighed in. A majority of the approximately 4 million comments received in 2014 urged the FCC to enact the tough rules.
But people sending in statements of support for the rules might be wasting their time in this new proceeding. Pai and his Republican colleague, Michael O'Rielly, have indicated they won't be swayed by the volume of comments for or against the proposal.
"As in any FCC rule-making what matters most is the quality of the comments, not the quantity," Pai said.
Democrat Mignon Clyburn voted against the proposal to repeal the net neutrality rules. She said she "vociferously dissented" because the move puts at risk the ability of Americans to "run your online business, access content over the Internet and exercise free speech without your service provider or anyone else getting in the way."
"While the majority engages in flowery rhetoric, about light-touch regulation and so on, the endgame appears to be no-touch regulation and a wholesale destruction of the FCC's public interest authority in the 21st century," Clyburn said.
Under Pai, the FCC cleared the way for big TV mergers last month by easing limits on broadcast TV ownership. On Thursday, the FCC voted to begin a review of all regulations on broadcast, cable and satellite TV providers to eliminate those that are "unnecessary or burdensome."
1:50 p.m.: This article was updated with additional comments from FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, details about net neutrality violations and broadband investment, as well as information on the agency's review of media regulations.