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FCC Passes Net Neutrality Rules in Victory for Open-Internet Activists

Image: Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler gestures at the FCC Net Neutrality hearing in Washington on Feb. 26, 2015. YURI GRIPAS / Reuters

After more than a year of heated public debate, the Federal Communications Commission on Thursday passed "net neutrality" rules: They allow the agency to prohibit Internet service providers from granting faster access to companies that pay for the privilege.

The new rules treat broadband providers as "common carriers" under Title II of the Telecommunications Act -- the same category as utility companies that provide gas, electricity, etc. -- in which all customers have equal access to service.

As was expected, the FCC commissioners voted along party lines with the three Democrats voting for the rules and two Republicans voting against.

What the Net Neutrality Ruling Means for You 1:36

"There are countries where it is routine for government, not the consumer, to determine who has access and what kind of content can be accessed by its citizens," said FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn at the meeting on Thursday. "I am proud to be able to say we are not one of them."

The fight leading up to Thursday's vote drew public debate -- the FCC received more than 4 million public comments -- and was generally split between content providers like Netflix and Google, in favor, and Internet providers like Comcast and Time Warner Cable, against. (Comcast is the parent company of NBCUniversal and NBC News.)

Who's for and who's against

Supporters of net neutrality have said allowing Internet "fast lanes" would unfairly raise prices on content services, as they would need to pay providers (and ultimately raise prices for their services) if they want to avoid slow speeds for customers.

But net neutrality opponents say the Title II designation will stifle innovation in broadband. Last May a group of CEOs from Internet providers including AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Comcast sent a letter to the FCC arguing the new classification allows the FCC to conduct "unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy."

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai reflected that philosophy in his dissenting remarks on Thursday. "Title II is not just a solution in search of a problem," he said. "It's a government solution that creates a real-world problem."

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Changes for consumers?

Open-Internet activists are cheering Thursday's vote, but Kevin Werbach, a professor of legal studies and business ethics at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, told NBC News on Wednesday that not much will change immediately for the average consumer.

"The day after the FCC order, your broadband will still cost the same amount as it did before," Werbach said. "Since 2010, there has been a set of rules, but it was unclear if those rules were enforceable. All this ruling means is that there will be FCC jurisdiction to examine practices and hear complaints."

The new rules are also expected to trigger lawsuits -- AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told CNBC earlier this month "there will be litigation" -- that could drag on for an extended period.