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The FCC just scrapped rules regulating equal access to the internet

by Alyssa Newcomb and Jo Ling Kent /  / Updated 
Image: Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), pauses while speaking during an open meeting in Washington, D.C. on Nov. 16, 2017. The FCC plans to vote in December to kill the net neutrality rules passed during the Obama era.Zach Gibson / Bloomberg via Getty Images file

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Net neutrality, the set of rules requiring internet service providers to treat all traffic as equal, is dead.

The five members of the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday 3-2 along party lines to scrap Obama-era net neutrality rules, returning to a "light touch" approach and ending what Chairman Ajit Pai has called the federal government's "micromanaging" of the internet.

The end of net neutrality rules marks a huge victory for the big internet service providers. Depending on how they decide to act, the repeal could have massive implications for the way all Americans use the internet.

Just before the vote, the meeting was abruptly evacuated on Thursday afternoon "on advice of security," said Pai. The five commissioners and people watching the meeting were asked to evacuate and leave their belongings in the room. It was unclear what prompted the evacuation, which lasted several minutes.

During that time, a live feed showed several members of law enforcement walking around the room and what appeared to be a bomb sniffing canine. The meeting was re-adjourned at 1:02 pm ET.

"Prior to 2015, before these regulations were imposed, we had a free and open internet," Pai told NBC News. "That is the future as well under a light touch, market-based approach. Consumers benefit, entrepreneurs benefit. Everybody in the internet economy is better off with a market based approach."

Comcast, the parent company of NBC News, celebrated the decision.

"Today’s action does not mark the ‘end of the Internet as we know it;’ rather it heralds in a new era of light regulation that will benefit consumers," said David L. Cohen, senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer of Comcast.

Sarah Kate Ellis, president and CEO of GLAAD, the world's largest LGBTQ media advocacy organization, warned that stripping net neutrality rules would "silence voices of already marginalized communities and render us invisible."

“The internet is a lifeline for LGBTQ people to build community support networks and access LGBTQ resources on history, suicide prevention, and health — allowing broadband providers to regulate access is a direct and unconscionable attack on freedom of expression," she said in a statement.

The arguments for and against

In short, net neutrality rules treat the internet like a utility, helping to control what consumers are charged and ensuring there is no paid prioritization — where internet service providers would be free to create so-called fast and slow lanes, allowing them to choose whether to block or slow certain websites.

Many Silicon Valley giants support net neutrality rules and argue that without them, the internet service providers could become gatekeepers of information and ultimately hurt consumers.

Tech titans spoke out recently against the repeal: Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak; Vint Cerf, known as the "father of the internet"; Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the world wide web; and 19 other technology pioneers all called the FCC's plan "rushed and technically incorrect," in a letter to the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, Innovation and the Internet.

Pai believes his move will spur innovation and investment, giving consumers more options when choosing an internet plan. This strategy would mean internet service providers would have to disclose through the FCC or on a publicly available website if they engage in practices such as throttling, blocking, and paid prioritization.

Related: Will smaller internet companies do better if the FCC kills net neutrality?

"These light touch market-based rules are the right way to go forward," said Pai. "The best evidence of that is the 1.5 trillion dollars in network investment that we saw between 1996 and 2015."

The vote did not come without plenty of controversy. The public feedback period, which closed in August, included a record-breaking 22 million comments. Among those were fake comments, including 2 million that used stolen identities, according to a statement from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, whose office is investigating the process.

Ahead of the vote, Schneiderman warned that moving forward with the motion would “make a mockery of our public comment process and reward those who perpetrated this fraud to advance their own hidden agenda.”

When will you notice a change?

Other than the social media uproar, there won't be any immediate changes to your internet experience.

"Realistically, I don’t think consumers are going to see much of a difference," said Daniel Lyons, an associate professor of law at Boston College and a tech policy expert.

While the ramifications won't be immediately felt, Commissioner Rosenworcel, who voted against gutting net neutrality, warned there could be long-term consequences.

"What this proposal would do is it would give broadband providers the legal right and the power to start blocking websites, or censoring content if they don't have a commercial relationship with that content. And so the open internet as we know it could change," she told NBC News. "Perhaps not immediately, but over time. And I think that's troubling."

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