WASHINGTON — The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to dismantle landmark rules regulating the businesses that connect consumers to the internet, granting broadband companies the power to potentially reshape Americans’ online experiences.
The agency scrapped the so-called net neutrality regulations that prohibited broadband providers from blocking websites or charging for higher-quality service or certain content. The federal government will also no longer regulate high-speed internet delivery as if it were a utility, like phone service.
The action reversed the agency’s 2015 decision, during the Obama administration, to better protect Americans as they have migrated to the internet for most communications. It will take a couple of weeks for the changes go into effect, but groups opposed to the action have already announced plans to sue the agency to restore the net neutrality regulations. Those suits could take many months to be resolved.
Ajit Pai, the chairman of the commission, said the rollback of the rules would eventually help consumers because broadband providers like AT&T and Comcast could offer people a wider variety of service options. Mr. Pai was joined in the 3-to-2 vote by his two fellow Republican commissioners.
“We are helping consumers and promoting competition,” Mr. Pai said in a speech before the vote. “Broadband providers will have more incentive to build networks, especially to underserved areas.”
The discarding of net neutrality regulations is the most significant and controversial action by the F.C.C. under Mr. Pai. In his first 11 months as chairman, he has lifted media ownership limits, eased caps on how much broadband providers can charge business customers and cut back on a low-income broadband program that was slated to be expanded to nationwide carriers.
His plan for the net neutrality rules, first outlined early this year, set off a flurry of opposition. Critics of the changes say that consumers may have more difficulty finding content online and that start-ups will have to pay to reach consumers. In the past week, there have been hundreds of protests across the country, and many websites have encouraged users to speak up against the repeal. After the vote, numerous groups said they planned to file a lawsuit challenging the change.
The five commissioners were fiercely divided along party lines. In front of a room packed with reporters and television cameras from the major networks, the two Democratic commissioners warned of consumer harms to come from the changes.
What Is Net Neutrality?
Mignon Clyburn, one of the Democratic commissioners, presented two accordion folders full of letters in protest to the changes, and accused the three Republican commissioners of defying the wishes of millions of Americans.
“I dissent, because I am among the millions outraged,” said Ms. Clyburn. “Outraged, because the F.C.C. pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers.”
Brendan Carr, a Republican commissioner, said it was a “great day” and dismissed “apocalyptic” warnings.
“I’m proud to end this two-year experiment with heavy-handed regulation,” Mr. Carr said.
During Mr. Pai’s speech before the vote, security guards entered the meeting room at the F.C.C. headquarters and told everyone to evacuate. Commissioners were ushered out a back door. The hearing restarted a short time later.
Despite all the uproar, it is unclear how much will change for internet users. The rules were essentially a protective measure, largely meant to prevent telecom companies from favoring some sites over others. And major telecom companies have promised consumers that their experiences online would not change.
Mr. Pai and his Republican colleagues have echoed the comments of telecom companies, who have told regulators that they weren’t expanding and upgrading their networks as quickly as they wanted to since the creation of the rules in 2015.
“There is a lot of misinformation that this is the ‘end of the world as we know it’ for the internet,” Comcast’s senior executive vice president, David Cohen, wrote in a blog post this week. “Our internet service is not going to change.”
But with the F.C.C. making clear that it will no longer oversee the behavior of broadband providers, telecom experts say, the companies could feel freer to come up with new offerings, such as faster tiers of service for business partners such as HBO’s streaming service or Fox News.
Such prioritization could stifle certain political voices or give the telecom conglomerates with media assets an edge over rivals.
Consumer groups, start-ups and many small businesses say there are examples of net neutrality violations by companies, such as when AT&T blocked FaceTime on iPhones using its network.
These critics of Mr. Pai, who was nominated by President Trump, say there isn’t enough competition in the broadband market to trust that the companies will try to offer the best services for customers. The providers have the incentive to begin charging websites to reach consumers, a strong business model when there are few places for consumers to turn when they don’t like those practices.
“Let’s remember why we have these rules in the first place,” said Michael Beckerman, president of the Internet Association, a trade group that represents big tech firms such as Google and Facebook. “There is little competition in the broadband service market.”
Mr. Beckerman said his group was weighing legal action against the commission. Public interest groups including Public Knowledge and the National Hispanic Media Coalition said they planned to challenge Mr. Pai’s order in court. Eric T. Schneiderman, the New York attorney general, also said he would file a lawsuit.
Dozens of Democratic lawmakers, and some Republicans, have pushed for Congress to pass a law on the issue, if only to prevent it from flaring up every couple of years at the F.C.C. — and then leading to a court challenge.
One Republican commissioner, Mike O’Reilly, said he supported a federal law created by Congress for net neutrality. But he said any law should protect the ability of companies to charge for faster lanes, a practice known as “paid prioritization.”
Any legislation action appears to be far off, however, and numerous online companies warned that the changes approved on Thursday should be taken seriously.
“If we don’t have net neutrality protections that enforce tenets of fairness online, you give internet service providers the ability to choose winners and losers,” Steve Huffman, chief executive of Reddit, said in an interview. “This is not hyperbole.”
Netflix, which has been relatively quiet in recent weeks about its opposition to the change, said that the decision “is the beginning of a longer legal battle.”