US regulators ditch net neutrality rules as legal battles loom

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New York Attorney-General to challenge ruling in court

WASHINGTON The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted along party lines yesterday to repeal landmark 2015 rules aimed at ensuring a free and open Internet, setting up a court fight over a move that could recast the digital landscape.

The approval of FCC chairman Ajit Pai's proposal in a 3-2 vote marked a victory for Internet service providers such as AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc and hands them power over what content consumers can access.

It is also the biggest win for Mr Pai in his sweeping effort to undo many telecommunications regulations since taking over at the agency in January.

Democrats, Hollywood and companies such as Google parent Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc had urged Mr Pai, a Republican appointed by US President Donald Trump, to keep the Obama-era rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content.

The new rules give Internet service providers sweeping powers to change how consumers access the Internet but must have new transparency requirements that will require them to disclose any changes to consumers, Reuters reported.

The meeting, held amid protests online and in front of the FCC headquarters in Washington, was evacuated before the vote for about 10 minutes due to an unspecified security threat, and resumed after law enforcement with sniffer dogs checked the room.

The Internet wasn’t broken in 2015. We weren’t living in a digital dystopia. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai

White House spokesman Sarah Huckabee Sanders told reporters the administration "supports the FCC's efforts. At the same time, the White House certainly has and always will support a free and fair Internet".

New York Attorney-General Eric Schneiderman, a Democrat, said in a statement he will lead a multi-state lawsuit to challenge the reversal.

The FCC said the rules would take effect in a few months after the White House Office of Management and Budget formally approves them.

Mr Pai has argued that the 2015 rules were heavy handed and stifled competition and innovation among service providers. "The Internet wasn't broken in 2015. We weren't living in a digital dystopia," he said.

Consumers are unlikely to see immediate changes but smaller start-ups worry the lack of restrictions could drive up costs or lead to their content being blocked.

Internet service providers say they will not block or throttle legal content but may engage in paid prioritisation.

They argue that the largely unregulated Internet functioned well in the two decades before the 2015 order.

On the eve of a historic vote, Mr Pai starred in an eccentric video that featured him dressed as Santa, wielding a lightsaber and clutching a fidget spinner to defend his contentious move to repeal net neutrality and mock the criticism against it, the Washington Post reported.

In a so-called public service announcement laced with pop culture references and Internet iconography, Mr Pai listed the "Seven things you can still do on the Internet after net neutrality". Mr Pai was first appointed to the FCC by President Obama in 2011.