Internet activists declared victory over the nation’s big cable companies Thursday after the Federal Communications Commission voted to impose the toughest rules yet on broadband providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to prevent them from creating paid fast lanes and slowing or blocking web traffic.
But Georgia Republicans said the new rules would obstruct innovation and expansion of Internet connectivity, particularly in rural parts of the state.
The 3-2 party-line vote, with Democrats in the majority, ushered in a new era of government oversight for an industry that has had relatively little. It represents the biggest regulatory shake-up to telecommunications providers in almost two decades.
U.S. Rep. Doug Collins, a Republican from Gainesville representing Northeast Georgia’s 9th District, said rural broadband development will suffer under the scope of net neutrality.
“These cumbersome new Internet rules will not only thwart entrepreneurialism but also slow deployment of broadband infrastructure the 9th District is counting on,” he said in a statement. “Our next generation is relying on a free and open Internet to pursue its dreams and ambitions, just like the rest of the country.”
Net neutrality is the idea that websites or videos load at about the same speed. That means you won’t be more inclined to watch a particular show on Amazon Prime instead of on Netflix because Amazon has struck a deal with your service provider to load its data faster.
Proponents of net neutrality say it ensures a free and open Internet. But its opponents use the same language in criticizing the FCC’s move.
“We deserve a more open Internet, not one that’s controlled and mandated by Washington,” Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., said in a statement. “The FCC also left lawmakers in the dark throughout this entire process. The FCC’s lack of transparency is another example of why Georgians are furious with Washington.”
The new rules require that any company providing a broadband connection to your home or phone must act in the “public interest” and refrain from using “unjust or unreasonable” business practices. The goal is to prevent providers from striking deals with content providers like Google, Netflix or Twitter to move their data faster.
“Today is a red-letter today for Internet freedom,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, whose remarks at Thursday’s meeting frequently prompted applause by Internet activists in the audience.
Verizon saw it differently, using the Twitter hashtag #Throwback Thursday to draw attention to the FCC’s reliance on 1934 legislation to regulate the Internet.
For years, providers mostly agreed not to pick winners and losers among Web traffic because they didn’t want to encourage regulators to step in and because they said consumers demanded it. But that started to change around 2005, when YouTube came online and Netflix became increasingly popular. On-demand video began hogging bandwidth, and evidence surfaced that some providers were manipulating traffic without telling consumers.
By 2010, the FCC enacted open Internet rules, but the agency’s legal approach was eventually struck down in the courts. The vote Thursday was intended by Wheeler to erase any legal ambiguity by no longer classifying the Internet as an “information service” but a “telecommunications service” subject to Title II of the 1934 Communications Act.
That would dramatically expand regulators’ power over the industry and hold broadband providers to the higher standard of operating in the public interest.
“Despite the cable industry’s best efforts to undermine our cause, we secured an open Internet, free from gatekeepers and corporate monopolies. We have an Internet for the people,” said David Segal, executive director of Demand Progress, a progressive Internet activism group.
Web-based corporations such as Google, Facebook, Netflix and Amazon all supported the FCC’s decision Thursday.
Internet service providers and congressional Republicans, on the other hand, fought bitterly to stave off the new regulations, which they said constitutes dangerous overreach and would eventually raise costs for consumers. The broadband industry is expected to sue.
GOP lawmakers said they would push for legislation to overturn the new rules, although it was unlikely President Barack Obama would sign such a bill.
“The FCC is proposing a federal takeover of the Internet, adding layers of slow-moving bureaucracy to high-speed communications,” Collins said. “The (FCC) made its decision under pressure from the (Obama) administration and special interest groups, which would prefer to pick political winners and losers. My resolution would prevent such a grave mistake that threatens to reverse our country’s technological progress, as well as to grant the government power to regulate free speech.”
Complicating the issue is that not every broadband provider agrees on what should be done. Sprint, for example, has said it doesn’t think the new regulations would hurt investment. AT&T, however, supports the less stringent rules previously in place by the FCC but which were struck down in court.
The FCC says it won’t apply some sections of Title II, including price controls. That means rates charged to customers for Internet access won’t be subject to preapproval. But the law allows the government to investigate if consumers complain that costs are unfair.
Times reporter Joshua Silavent and Associated Press reports contributed to this story.