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The Trump-appointed head of the Federal Communications Commission capped more than a decade of wrangling on Tuesday with a plan to sweep away all the rules preventing US broadband companies from favouring some types of internet traffic over others.
Ajit Pai, chairman of the agency, said it would vote in December on a proposal to scrap Obama-era regulations that bar network owners from slowing or blocking traffic, or charging more for internet “fast lanes”.
Mr Pai had made the reversal of the so-called net neutrality rules, adopted in 2015, the centrepiece of his promise to “fire up the weed whacker” to cut through US communications and media regulations. Republican commissioners hold a three-two majority, paving the way for formal adoption before the end of the year.
The expected move marks a significant victory for telecoms and cable companies, led by AT&T, Verizon and Comcast, who have argued for years that US attempts at regulation have unfairly tied their hands and reduced the incentive to invest in new networks. It was widely attacked by big internet companies, as well as a broad coalition of internet activists and grassroots organisations.
The ending of net neutrality, if completed, will be one of the highlights of the Trump administration’s promise to roll back what it claims are burdensome and unnecessary regulations. But the news comes in a week when the justice department has taken a more activist stance than it showed under the last administration, filing a lawsuit against AT&T to block the telecom company’s planned purchase of Time Warner.
Mr Pai stressed the bipartisan approach that had given rise to a lightly regulated internet in its early years, highlighting that the Clinton administration and a Republican Congress had stood back from imposing neutrality rules.
Regulators only sent a first shot across the bow of broadband companies in 2005, when the FCC laid out general principles about how they handle traffic. A subsequent action against Comcast for blocking traffic on file-sharing network BitTorrent was overthrown by an appeals court.
More formal rules, adopted in 2010, were also thrown out by a federal court after a challenge from Verizon. That led the FCC to turn back to an older and more stringent regulatory framework, which was first developed to govern monopoly telephone companies, though it promised to apply a light touch.
Mr Pai condemned the rules as “heavy-handed, utility-style regulations upon the internet”, and said they had “depressed investment in building and expanding broadband networks and deterred innovation”.
In place of the current restrictions, Mr Pai said internet service providers (ISPs) would have to be “transparent about their practices so that consumers can buy the service plan that’s best for them”. Opponents have argued that most US households have access to at most two broadband suppliers, producing too little competition to ensure networks remain open.
The FCC chairman also suggested that antitrust regulators would have a role to play in preventing broadband companies from using their new freedom to squeeze consumer or internet companies, with the Federal Trade Commission given the task of policing the way they operate.
Comments from companies and interest groups on both sides of the debate on Tuesday suggested that Mr Pai’s action would not be the last word on the issue.
Reddit, the online forum that played a central role in stirring up a groundswell of opposition to an earlier proposal to end net neutrality, said it would continue to push for regulations, adding: “It is crucial to innovation and the health of our economy that small businesses have equal access to the internet, with winners and losers chosen by consumers, not ISPs.”
Scrapping the 2015 regulations was the only option “given the lack of net neutrality harms to date, the virtually null chance of disruptions to business as usual, and the limited options afforded under the statute”, said Doug Brake, a telecom analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. But he also said that Congress should “end this unnecessarily acrimonious debate once and for all”.