The US's telecom regulator has announced plans to scrap "net neutrality" rules that bar internet service providers from influencing the content viewed by their customers. Critics warn the move will stifle competition.
US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai on Tuesday unveiled plans to repeal a landmark 2015 order that aims to ensure equal access to all web content.
The current net neutrality rules, as they are known, essentially dictate that the internet be regulated as a public utility. The hotly contested measures, championed by former President Barack Obama, prevent broadband service providers from creating internet "slow" or "fast" lanes to certain content in an attempt to punish rivals and prioritize web traffic to their own digital services.
"Under my proposal, the federal government will stop micromanaging the internet," Pai said. "We should simply set rules of the road that let companies of all kinds in every sector compete and let consumers decide who wins and loses."
The commission is expected to vote on his plan on December 14.
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Showdown with consumer groups
Internet service providers such as AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have long called for net neutrality to be rolled back, saying the move could lead to billions of dollars in broadband investment.
"The removal of antiquated, restrictive regulations will pave the way for broadband network investment, expansion and upgrades," Jonathan Spalter, chief executive of the industry association USTelecom, said in a statement.
Consumer groups and internet companies, on the other hand, have urged Pai to keep the rules intact.
Matt Wood of the consumer group Free Press said the new initiative would allow internet providers to "censor online speech and manipulate economic activity to their favor, while taking away the educational opportunities and political-organizing tools essential to millions of people across the country."
Michael Beckerman, CEO of the Internet Association, a group whose members include internet giants like Facebook, Google and Amazon, said service providers should not be allowed to use their "gatekeeper position at the point of connection to discriminate against websites and apps."
Another group, Consumers Union, warned ditching the rules could lead to ISPs raising their prices and giving special treatment to certain websites, threatening the concept of a free and open internet.
All but certain change
The new proposal would require ISPs to disclose whether they allow blocking or slowing down and speeding up of consumer web access to facilitate a practice called paid prioritization.
Pai said his proposal would also prevent state and local governments from creating their own net neutrality rules because internet service is "inherently an interstate service."
With three Republicans and two Democratic commissioners in the FCC, the plan is expected to be approved.
nm/kms (AP, AFP, Reuters, dpa)