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Net Neutrality Upheld, FCC Split 3-2

(CN) - Net neutrality won out in a 3-2 vote by the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday to preserve free, open Internet access.

In the key vote, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler joined Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel to approve measures that will require Internet service providers such as Verizon and Comcast to treat all Internet traffic on an equal basis.

Without such rules, a provider could prevent a user from accessing certain websites, or significantly slow service to them, unless the website paid the provider for premium service.

"The action that we take today is an irrefutable reflection of the principle that no one - whether government or corporate - should control free open access to the Internet," Wheeler said in a statement.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the only African American on the board and one of two women who voted for net neutrality, said in a statement, "I believe the Framers would be pleased to see these principles embodied in a platform that has become such an important part of our lives. I also believe that they never envisioned a government that would include the input and leadership of women, people of color, and immigrants, or that there would be such an open process that would enable more than four million citizens to have a direct conversation with their government. They would be extremely amazed, I venture to say, because even we are amazed."

The chairman announced his intentions Feb. 4 in an opinion piece published on Wired magazine's website.

"I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC," Wheeler wrote. "These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply - for the first time ever - those bright-line rules to mobile broadband."

Republican FCC Commissioners Michael O'Rielly and Ajut Pai voted against adopting the proposal.

The FCC first proposed net-neutrality rules to prevent telecommunications companies from blocking sites based on their views or whether the site might be competition in 2009.

But the D.C. Circuit struck down the commission's first attempt to enforce network neutrality regulations in Comcast v. FCC.

Then, in a January 2014 appeal brought by Verizon, the D.C. Circuit found that the FCC does not have the authority to regulate broadband Internet companies.

It cited the agency's 2002 determination that broadband Internet is not a "common carrier" like a phone company or other utility, except as to the extent it is involved in telecommunications. Instead, they were called "information services."

In line with this decision, Wheeler said he would propose allowing companies such as Netflix and Google to pay Internet providers for special, faster lanes to send video and other content to their customers.

The proposal inspired a huge public outcry, however, with nearly 4 million public comments flooding the agency through the summer. In November, President Barack Obama took the rare step of expressing his opinion on the matter.

"'Net neutrality' has been built into the fabric of the Internet since its creation - but it is also a principle that we cannot take for granted," Obama said. "We cannot allow Internet service providers (ISPs) to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas."

Taking these comments to heart, Wheeler fashioned a proposal that would reclassify ISPs as common carriers, subject to FCC regulation, and impose three "bright line" rules: no blocking of access to legal content, no throttling of Internet traffic, and no paid prioritization favoring some websites over others.

The new rules will, however, exempt ISPs from price regulation and tariffs that apply to other kinds of utilities.

"We have heard endless repetition of the talking point that 'Title II is old-style, 1930's monopoly regulation,'" Chairman Wheeler said, referring to critics of the Open Internet Order. "It's a good sound bite, but it is misleading when used to describe the modernized version of Title II in this Order.

"Today's order will also use the significant powers in Section 706, not as a substitute but as a complement," Wheeler added. "This one-two punch applies both Title II, as well as Section 706, to protect broadband Internet access. It is the FCC using all of the tools in its toolbox to protect innovators and consumers."

Under the new rules, FCC authority will extend equally to both fixed and mobile networks.

"Mobile wireless networks account for 55 percent of Internet usage. We cannot have two sets of Internet protections - one fixed and one mobile - when the difference is increasingly anachronistic to consumers," Wheeler said.

Commissioner Clyburn emphasized that the commission adopted the Open Internet Order as part of the government's ongoing commitment to protecting citizens' First Amendment rights.

"As we look around the world we see foreign governments blocking access to websites including social media - in sum, curtailing free speech. There are countries where it is routine for governments, not the consumer, to determine the type of websites and content that can be accessed by its citizens. I am proud to be able to say that we are not among them," she said.

In a separate vote, the FCC also voted 3-2 to let community broadband providers expand service, pre-empting state laws in Tennessee and North Carolina that prevents smaller providers from meeting local demand for Internet service.

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