The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday proposed repealing the rules for online traffic, setting the stage for a vote next month to roll back the controversial Obama-era initiative.
The move by Ajit Pai, a Republican appointed by President Donald Trump, triggered another round in a fight dating to 2003 over whether the government should be actively involved in assuring the unfettered flow of information on the internet or leave it to market forces.
Eliminating the regulations would allow internet service providers to block access to some websites and charge others for faster delivery of their content to consumers.
Telecommunications companies have said they have no plans to stop internet users from accessing legal content but could start experimenting with paid prioritization, such as offering one streaming service to deliver movies at a faster speed than another.
FCC officials said repealing net neutrality restrictions could be crucial to advancing new technologies, such as autonomous vehicles and remote health monitoring, that would need guaranteed internet connections.
Public interest advocates said the elimination of the rules could simply lead internet service providers to charge consumers and websites higher prices.
Republicans, who now have a 3-2 majority on the FCC, are poised to win this latest battle – a significant victory in the party's deregulatory push since Trump took office.
But, like previous net neutrality fights, this one is probably headed to courts, assuming the FCC repeals the rules as expected in a vote on Dec. 14.
Pai said he is trying to restore "the light-touch regulatory approach" that has allowed the internet economy to flourish since the 1990s.
"Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet," Pai said in a written statement.
"Instead, the FCC would simply require internet service providers to be transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that's best for them and entrepreneurs and other small businesses can have the technical information they need to innovate," he said.
The current rules 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 the federal telecommunications law. That allowed oversight of online privacy to shift to the FCC from the Federal Trade Commission.
Under Pai's plan, which he said would be publicly released Wednesday ahead of next month's vote, the FTC would resume policing internet service providers for online privacy.
This spring, Trump signed legislation passed by Congress overturning new privacy regulations enacted by the FCC last fall on a party-line vote when the agency was controlled by Democrats.
Pai proposed that internet service providers would only have to disclose to the public if they were blocking, throttling or prioritizing content. The FTC, which monitors all companies for unfair and deceptive practices, and the Justice Department, which shares antitrust oversight with the FTC, would make sure an internet service provider's practices don't harm consumers or competition.
Pai's two GOP colleagues, Mike O'Rielly and Brendan Carr, are expected to vote for the repeal.
Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel _ who voted to put the current regulations in place in 2015 _ condemned Pai's move.
"It would be a big blunder for a slim majority of the FCC to approve these rules and saddle every internet user with the cruel consequences," Rosenworcel said. She reiterated a call for public hearings before the vote, but none are scheduled.
Public interest groups and liberal activists have strongly supported the rules and were outraged by Pai's proposal.
"Repealing the net neutrality rules would give internet service providers more power and control over the websites we can visit, and it would make it harder for small businesses and innovators to compete online," said Jonathan Schwantes, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. "This move would likely lead to consumers paying higher prices for the internet access and speeds they have today."
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other congressional Democrats also spoke out against repealing net neutrality. Activist groups announced they would protest at Verizon Communications Inc. retail stores nationwide on Dec. 7.
Telecommunications companies and conservatives cheered the proposed repeal.
"The removal of antiquated, restrictive regulations will pave the way for broadband network investment, expansion and upgrades," said Jonathan Spalter, chief executive of USTelecom, a trade group whose membership includes AT&T and Verizon Communications Inc.
Last December, after Trump's election, Pai said he wanted to "fire up the weed whacker" to eliminate burdensome regulations and expressed confidence that the "days are numbered" for the net neutrality rules. Pai said the rules have led to reduced investment in broadband networks _ a point net neutrality supporters dispute.
"Chairman Pai deserves tremendous credit for fulfilling his promise of taking a weed whacker to costly and unnecessary regulation that hinders investment, innovation and job creation," said Dan Holler, vice president of Heritage Action for America, a conservative activist group.
Pai called for a repeal in April and the Republican-controlled FCC voted 2-1 along party lines a month later to begin a formal rule-making process.
The agency received more than 22 million comments about the fate of the rules.
— Jim Puzzanghera, Los Angeles Times