The Republican-dominated Federal Communications Commission in the United States has followed through on its pledge to scrap net neutrality rules adopted in the final years of the Obama administration.
The end came on Thursday afternoon in Washington, as commissioners voted 3-2, on party lines, to jettison the regulations.
The expected decision signals a major victory for cable and telecoms companies, who will be freed to charge internet companies higher prices for guaranteed delivery of their services.
Comcast and AT&T have promised they won’t take advantage of their new freedoms to block or slow down internet services running over their networks – though they have pointedly stopped short of swearing off using internet “fast lanes” or giving preference to their in-house video services, leaving them free to generate new sources of revenue.
Consumers are unlikely to see immediate changes resulting from the rule change, but smaller start-ups worry the lack of restrictions could drive up costs or lead to their content being blocked.
Rather than just undoing rules set by the previous administration, the FCC was "reversing policies that have been in place since the dial-up era," the American Civil Liberties Union complained.
Ajit Pai, the FCC's chairman, said rolling back the net neutrality rules would return the internet to "the light touch regulation" that has existed before 2015. "It is not going to kill democracy," he said.
“The internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia. To the contrary, the internet is perhaps the one thing in American society we can all agree has been a stunning success,” Mr Pai added.
Democrats, Hollywood and companies such as Google parent Alphabet and Facebook had urged Mr Pai to keep the Obama-era rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content.
FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in a written dissent released on Thursday that the decision grants internet providers “extraordinary new power” from the FCC.
“They have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic. And now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead,” she said.
Consumer advocates and trade groups representing content providers have planned a legal challenge aimed at preserving those rules.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said in a statement he will lead a multi-state lawsuit to challenge the reversal. He called the vote “a blow to New York consumers, and to everyone who cares about a free and open internet”.
FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, also a Democrat, said in the run-up to the vote that Republicans were “handing the keys to the internet” to a “handful of multi-billion dollar corporations”.
Shares of Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft moved lower after the vote.
– Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017/Reuters