US watchdog the FCC today approved its strongest ever rules governing internet access. The regulations were passed in a 3-2 vote by commissioners.
"It's a red letter day for the internet," said FCC chairman Tom Wheeler just prior to calling the vote. "Today history is being made." The vote fell along partisan lines, with the chairman and two Democratic commissioners voting in favor and the two Republican commissioners voting against.
The "net neutrality" rules will bring broadband access under Title II legislation, designed for the telephone industry back in the 1930s.
This means broadband will be treated like a phone service, which is strictly regulated: it's possible ISPs may not be able to do things like prioritize a particular website's traffic to the detriment of others, for example.
It is a controversial decision but one for which many, including the President, have actively campaigned for. The decision is also expected to have a worldwide impact given the United States' dominant position in internet services.
Despite being hailed as a victory by advocates of an open internet, the rules are expected to be almost immediately challenged in the courts. Critics of net neutrality rules argue they represent government overreach, pulling regulation into a field that has thrived in many respects because of the lack of rules and regulations.
The Republican-controlled Congress is also threatening to pass legislation that would overrule the FCC's rules, although such a law would likely be vetoed by President Obama and not achieve sufficient support from Democrats to overcome that block.
Advocates of net neutrality say the FCC was given little choice but to apply the rules following a successful legal challenge to its previous Open Internet rules by telecoms giant Verizon, and the rejection of a proposed "hybrid" model put forward briefly by FCC chair Tom Wheeler.
The cable companies' proposed solution (apply the far lighter section 706 of legislation passed at the very beginning of the internet's commercial development) would have given significant leeway to cable companies to apply controls and fees. That sparked fears that the internet would become increasingly dominated by large corporations able to pay for preferential treatment – internet fast lanes to squeeze out smaller rivals, in other words.
The full impact of the regulations will take time to evaluate however, not least because the FCC's chairman has refused to publish a copy of the net neutrality rules.
"We cannot possibly imagine what happens next," said Wheeler. Verizon's and AT&T's lawyers have a pretty good idea however. ®