The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday enacted its most sweeping change to telecom regulation in years by voting 3-2 to reclassify Internet service providers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, thus giving the commission the power to enforce net neutrality rules.
The vote caps off a long fight that pitted many Internet activists and tech companies against big ISPs such as Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable. Pro-net neutrality activists have argued that ISPs need to be barred from creating paid prioritization services in which they can charge content providers more money to ensure the faster delivery of their traffic. ISPs, for their part, have insisted that such regulations are unnecessary and will hurt their incentives to invest in their networks.
The FCC first started to take up net neutrality again early last year after a court overturned the commission’s previous legal framework for enforcing net neutrality restrictions. That particular framework, which had the reluctant endorsement of AT&T and some other ISPs, tried to enforce net neutrality restrictions on wireline carriers without reclassifying them under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.
However, after the court ruled that the FCC didn’t have the authority to impose such regulations without reclassifying ISPs as telecommunications services, the commission was left with three choices: Reclassify ISPs under Title II, wait for Congress to pass new legislation or do nothing.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler had originally planned to offer up a hybrid plan that would have barred ISPs from blocking content while also allowing them to create so-called Internet “fast lanes,” but this plan was met with a major backlash from net neutrality proponents and tech companies such as Netflix.
In the absence of any likely Congressional help, the FCC decided to vote to reclassify ISPs despite fierce lobbying from the telecommunications and cable industries. However, ISPs have vowed to file suit against the FCC over its rule changes so we shouldn’t expect that this story is over by any stretch of the imagination.