The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to go forward with the proposal of new rules that could set standards for Internet providers who wish to create paid priority fast lanes on their networks.
The preliminary vote, in which three of agency's commissioners supported the measure and two dissented, moves the so-called "net neutrality" rules into a formal public comment period. After the 120-day period ends, the FCC will revise the proposal and vote on a final set of rules. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has said he wants the rules in place by the end of this year.
"Today we take another step in what has been a decade-long effort to protect a free and open Internet," Wheeler, a Democrat, said before the vote.
But the idea of allowing priority access, even if it's regulated by the government, has received heavy criticism from many companies that do business online, along with open Internet advocates. Outside the hearing protesters banged drums and held up signs calling for net neutrality. At least one was ushered out of the hearing after standing up and yelling at the commissioners.
Commissioner Michael O'Rielly, who voted no, called the proposed rules a "regulatory boondoggle," arguing that supporters of the rules haven't shown they will help consumers.
And Commissioner Ajit Pai, who also voted no, said the issue would be better decided by Congress than by five unelected officials. But since the issue has fallen on the commission, he argued that a group of economists from across the country should do peer-reviewed studies and host a series of public hearings to hammer out their differences before a decision is made.
"In short, getting the future of the Internet right is more important than getting this done right now," Pai said.
A previous set of rules from 2010 was struck down by an appeals court in January after Verizon challenged them. The FCC says the rules currently proposed follow the blueprint set forth by that court decision.
In addition, the commission will consider the possibility of defining Internet service providers as "common carriers," like telephone companies, which are subject to greater regulation than Internet providers, under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.
The FCC and Wheeler have so far avoided subjecting cable and telecoms companies to Title II treatment, although Wheeler has said the option remains on the table.