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FCC votes to protect the internet with Title II regulation

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Net neutrality has won at the FCC. In a 3-to-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission today established a new Open Internet Order that implements strict net neutrality rules, including prohibitions on site and app blocking, speed throttling, and paid fast lanes.

A huge win for net neutrality

Critically, the order also reclassifies internet providers' offerings as telecommunications services under Title II of the Communications Act. Though this is likely to provoke a challenge in court, Title II gives the commission the tools it needs to enforce these strict rules.

This is also the first time that net neutrality rules will apply, in full, to mobile internet service. Additionally, the commission uses the new order to assert its ability to investigate and address complaints about "interconnect" agreements — deals made between internet providers like Comcast and content companies like Netflix, which has regularly complained that these deals are unfair.

The FCC's new order establishes a standard that requires internet providers to take no actions that unreasonably interfere with or disadvantage consumers or the companies whose sites and apps they're trying to access. At most, internet providers may slow down service only for the purpose of "reasonable network management" — not a business purpose.

Title II is the FCC's strongest tool for enforcing open internet rules

This is a huge win for net neutrality advocates. Since the commission's original net neutrality rules were struck down in court last year, advocates have been pushing for the FCC to use utility-style Title II reclassification when implementing a new order.

For a while, it didn't look like that was going to happen. Commission chairman Tom Wheeler initially proposed rules that seemingly undermined the entire concept of net neutrality by allowing paid fast lanes. But earlier this month, following support from President Obama and millions of public comments spurred on by a popular John Oliver segment and advocacy from major websites like Netflix, Kickstarter, and Tumblr, Wheeler announced the dramatically overhauled new plan that was pushed through today.

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

"We cannot have a two-tiered internet with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind," commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said at today's meeting. "We cannot have gatekeepers who tell us what we can and cannot do and where we can and cannot go online.  And we do not need blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization schemes that undermine the internet as we know it."

"We have to add net neutrality to a list of basic market conditions that we protect."

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn also spoke strongly in favor of the order. "We are here because we want to give those with deep pockets and those with empty pockets the same opportunities to succeed," she said. Clyburn notes that, while she voted in favor of the 2010 rules, today's order is far closer to what she originally supported. Clyburn also says that a minor classification change has been made to the proposal to address one of her concerns with it — an issue that Google and Free Press both agreed with her on. That said, Clyburn says that she would have liked to see the "unreasonable discrimination rule" from the 2010 order used here instead of the unreasonably interference rule, and that isn't being changed.

As the vote makes clear, the entire commission isn't on board with the new rules. Both Republican commissioners, Michael O’Rielly and Ajit Pai, have expressed their disagreement with the order. Prior to the vote today, O'Rielly issued a statement arguing that the commission's decision-making power had been usurped by the administration for political purposes. He also argues that net neutrality is unnecessary, that Title II imposes overbearing regulation, and that Title II doesn't actually stand on solid legal footing. For comparison, he has previously drawn a line between 4K TV and interplanetary teleportation.

Pai put forward a strong dissent as well, arguing that the commission was unable to act independently. "We are flip-flopping for one reason and one reason only," Pai said. "President Obama told us to do so." Pai believes that implementing this order will lead to "higher broadband prices, slower broadband speeds, less broadband deployment, less innovation, and fewer options for consumers." He also questioned the commission's legal authority to implement the order.

Advocates say net neutrality protects economic opportunities and diversity

The commission also brought out a number of notable advocates to speak before the vote. That included Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson, Veena Sud, an executive producer for The Killing who appeared to be speaking on behalf of Netflix, and Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the web. Dickerson applauded the commission for protecting the internet "as an engine for economic opportunity, the likes of which we have never seen." Sud pointed to multiple Netflix series and cited the greater diversity you find online. Berners-Lee put his feelings quite simply: "We have to add net neutrality to a list of basic market conditions that we protect."

The new rules should go into effect around two to three months from now, though the time will vary depending on how long it takes the commission to release the order to the Federal Register. The commissioners may still need to fix technical points in the order, which can be changed with unanimous agreement.

Though this is an important victory for net neutrality advocates, their fight is not yet over. It is almost certain that one internet provider or another will challenge the rules in court, and those proceedings could take years, leaving the future of this order uncertain. The commission's chances in court look good, but there are a number of complications that it will likely have to address. This time, at least, the FCC is using the strongest tools that it has to implement these protections.

Check out our FCC net neutrality meeting liveblog for more!