Net rule undoing begins

WASHINGTON - Federal regulators on Thursday took the first formal step toward repealing tough net neutrality rules enacted two years ago that imposed strict oversight of internet service providers to ensure the unfettered flow of online content.

The move by the Federal Communications Commission - cheered on by major broadband companies and strongly opposed by consumer advocates - is part of a broader effort by Republicans since President Trump took office to undo regulations enacted during the Obama era.

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Ajit Pai, FCC chair, voted against net neutrality.

With net neutrality supporters, including Sen. Edward Markey (D., Mass.), protesting outside the agency's building, the Republican-controlled FCC voted 2-1 along party lines to start a formal, months-long process of dismantling the rules put in place in 2015.

The FCC said the goal was to restore the "light-touch" regulation that had allowed the internet to flourish.

"The internet was not broken in 2015. We were not living in a digital dystopia," said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican who voted against the rules when they were adopted.

"These utility-style regulations . . . were and are like the proverbial sledgehammer being wielded against a flea - yet in this case there was no flea," Pai said.

He argued that there were no abuses by broadband providers that required the FCC to take action to preserve a free and open internet.

The net neutrality rules, enacted by a party-line vote when Democrats controlled the agency, 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 federal telecommunications law.

In the weeks before Trump appointed him as the nation's top telecommunications regulator, Pai had promised to "fire up the weed whacker" to remove harmful regulations and declared that the "days were numbered" for the net neutrality rules.

Pai said the FCC's rules give regulators too much control over the internet and have led to reduced investment in broadband networks - a point net-neutrality supporters dispute.

Last month, Pai publicly stated his intention to reverse the new classification of broadband. On Thursday, Pai and his Republican colleague, Michael O'Rielly, voted to start the rule-making process to do so.

The FCC is seeking public comment on its proposal to eliminate the Title 2 classification of broadband and a general conduct standard that sought to protect internet users from future unreasonably discriminatory practices.

The agency also asked for input on whether it should "keep, modify, or eliminate" the specific rules on blocking content, slowing connections, or allowing companies to pay to prioritize delivery of their content.

Democrat Mignon Clyburn voted against the move. She said she "vociferously dissented" because the proposal risks the ability of Americans to "run your online business, access content over the internet, and exercise free speech without your service provider or anyone else getting in the way."

"While the majority engages in flowery rhetoric, about 'light-touch' regulation and so on, the endgame appears to be no-touch regulation and a wholesale destruction of the FCC's public-interest authority in the 21st century," Clyburn said.