FCC votes to bring back Obama-era ‘net neutrality’ rules that were repealed under Trump

The rules aim to ensure that websites and apps have equal access to the global internet regardless of their size or ability to pay the companies that own the web’s infrastructure, such as network cables and cell towers.

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to restore the policy of net neutrality, a set of rules that requires broadband internet providers to treat all internet traffic more or less equally. 

The move is a continuation of a battle that has raged for 20 years, with competing visions about what an open and efficient internet should look like. 

The vote was 3-2, with the FCC’s Democratic majority in favor and the Republican minority opposed. The vote largely restores a policy that was put in place in 2015 during the Obama administration and then repealed during the Trump administration in 2017. 

The net neutrality rules are designed to ensure that websites and apps have equal access to the global internet regardless of their size or ability to pay the companies that own the web’s infrastructure, such as network cables and cell towers. They block broadband internet providers from manipulating speeds or creating internet “fast lanes” where a company might pay extra for faster uploads and downloads of its content. 

“Through its actions today, the Commission creates a national standard by which it can ensure that broadband internet service is treated as an essential service,” the commission said in a statement

The vote means that broadband services will be treated as Title II telecommunications services, a category of federal law that originally referred to phone networks to ensure they were nondiscriminatory. It makes the internet closer to an essential service, like power or water. 

“Broadband access to the Internet is a critical conduit that is essential for modern life,” Anna Gomez, a Democratic appointee to the commission, said in a statement

“The value is so great that we cannot wait for the flood to arrive before we start to build the levee,” she said. 

FCC Chair Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement before the vote that the rules are the same as ones upheld in a federal court ruling in 2016. She said they would be helpful in a range of contexts, including allowing the FCC to step in when households lose internet service. 

Internet giants such as Google and Netflix have often jumped into the net neutrality debate in favor of the rules, arguing they promote an open internet. Internet service providers including Comcast, the parent company of NBC News, have generally opposed the regulations. 

NCTA — The Internet & Television Association, a trade group that includes Comcast, said the FCC was trying to control the internet and said there was “no evidence of a problem to be solved.”

“Public utilities are notorious for chronic underinvestment and glacial innovation. The FCC’s action uses our nation’s aging utilities and crumbling infrastructure as the model for today’s internet,” the group’s president and CEO, Michael Powell, said in a statement. He predicted the action would be overturned in court. 

Brendan Carr, a Republican appointee to the commission, wrote in a dissent that the rules will dissuade companies from investing in network upgrades and lead to other uncertainty. 

“Can ISPs offer customized plans for consumers with unique data, speed, or cost needs?” he wrote, referring to internet service providers. “Possibly, but it depends. What about intelligent networks to prevent congestion? Sure, but only if a handful of indeterminate factors are met.”

The repeal of net neutrality rules in 2017 helped to spur California to pass a state net neutrality law, which a federal court upheld in 2022. 

Columbia University Law Professor Tim Wu, sometimes called the father of net neutrality after he coined the term in a 2003 paper, celebrated the vote as a win over “the telecom industry and their paid pundits.” 

“On the restoration of Net Neutrality rules — after working on this for 22 years, I’m happy that the idea has passed from outsider proposal to something that feels like obvious common sense for one of life’s main utilities,” he wrote on X.

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