Net neutrality advocates rejoiced on Thursday as the FCC voted to enact strict regulation on the companies that connect people to the Internet.
Internet Service Providers (ISPs) — both landline and wireless — will now be subject to stringent oversight on how they handle data that flows over their networks. The regulation will prevent the companies that operate the Internet's infrastructure from striking deals to give preferential treatment to content providers. For example, under these rules Netflix can't pay Comcast for faster access to customers — and Comcast can't force Netflix to do so.
The commission voted 3-2, split along the usual party lines. Chairman Tom Wheeler along with Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted for the move. Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly voted against.
The celebration for Wheeler and net neutrality supporters may be short lived. It is widely expected that the ISPs subject to these regulations will take the regulator to court. Two previous efforts by the FCC to enact net neutrality regulation have been thrown out by courts.
In addition to overseeing the flow of data over networks, the FCC had also been seeking oversight on the physical connections between networks — so-called interconnection or peering. This area has reportedly been the subject of a late tweak that had been pushed by Google.
The vote now reclassifies broadband Internet under Title II of the Communications Act, meaning the companies will be now regulated in a manner similar to utilities like power. But ISPs will not be subject to certain parts of Title II regulation, such as price controls and forced sharing of infrastructure.
A year in the making
The vote is the culmination of almost a year of heated argument over the government's role in regulating the Internet. The road to the vote began in January 2014, when a D.C. Court of Appeals struck down previous regulation that enforced net neutrality.
Since then, the FCC has been moving toward new rules. The initial proposal, first leaked in April, drew a torrent of criticism. Net neutrality advocates argued that it explicitly allowed ISPs to create fast lanes for companies that pay for preferential treatment.
John Oliver's segment on net neutrality from HBO's Last Week Tonight marked something of a turning point in the debate. While there had been no shortage of debate, Oliver's segment drew widespread attention and helped generate a wave of comments to the FCC in support of stronger rules.
The wave of support for stronger regulation worked.
Wheeler had said publicly numerous times that the FCC would consider reclassification. As the months wore on, this turned out to be more than an idle promise.
Public pressure combined with a push from major Internet companies and President Barack Obama had turned the tide. The ISPs even showed signs of concern, with AT&T warning that reclassification could force it to hold back on fiber Internet investment.
By early 2015, Wheeler seemed to be insinuating in public speeches that the FCC would vote on reclassification.
Reaction poured in following the announcement of the decision, with the ISPs targeted by the rule decrying the decision and advocates celebrating.
"The uncertainty created by the FCC’s plan will jeopardize the fast pace of private sector investment and improvements," said Scott Belcher, CEO of the Telecommunications Industry Association.
"The FCC has taken the overwhelming support for an open Internet and pried open the door to heavy-handed government regulation in a space celebrated for its free enterprise," said Michael Powell, CEO of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association and a former FCC chairman.
Proponents of the plan marked the occasion as a victory for consumers.
“Today’s vote is among the greatest public interest victories in U.S. history," said Barbara van Schewick, a Stanford Law Professor and director of the Stanford Center for Internet and Society. "The FCC’s strong rules banning blocking, throttling and paid prioritization will help protect innovation, economic growth, and democratic discourse in America."
Numerous politicians weighed in, with 11 Democratic senators issuing a joint statement in support of the vote.
"We join with millions of Americans in celebrating today’s victory for consumers, innovators and entrepreneurs. The Commission’s vote is a decisive step to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for consumers and a level playing field for all," the statement read.
The president also weighed in.
Verizon's response garnered some of the widest attention, as it equated the new rules to 1930's style regulation.
BONUS: How net neutrality and the FCC affects you