The Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2, on party lines, Thursday to unravel sweeping net-neutrality rules that guaranteed equal access to the internet.
Ending net neutrality could usher in big changes in how Americans use the internet, as the measure is a radical departure from more than a decade of federal oversight. Protesters were gathered outside the FCC office ahead of the vote.
The broadband industry promises that the internet experience isn't going to change, but protests have erupted online and in the streets as everyday Americans worry that cable and phone companies will be able to control what they see and do online.
"Prior to 2015, before these regulations were imposed, we had a free and open internet," Chairman Ajit Pai told NBC News ahead of the vote. "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."
Opponents of the FCC's move plan legal challenges. Some net-neutrality supporters hope to ride that wave of public opinion into the 2018 elections.
The FCC meeting room was abruptly cleared before the vote, as Pai was speaking.
"On advice of security, we need to take a brief recess," Pai said in the middle of his remarks.
A police officer told the people in the room to leave the room without bringing anything. It wasn't immediately clear why the room was cleared, but the all-clear was given after about 15 minutes.
About 60 protesters braved frigid temperatures and biting winds Thursday morning, including Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, a Silicon Valley congressman who says "this is an issue for the middle class" who will "get nickeled and dimed for extra email use" or downloading videos.
Ahead of the vote in the FCC chambers, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat who was appointed by President Barack Obama, lambasted the "preordained outcome" of the vote that she says hurts people, small and large businesses, and marginalized populations. She outlined her dissent from prepared remarks before the vote.
The end of net neutrality, she said, hands over the keys to the internet to a "handful of multi-billion dollar corporations."
With their vote, the FCC's majority commissioners, said Clyburn, are abandoning the pledge they took to make a rapid, efficient communications service available to all people in the U.S., without discrimination.
This item, she said, "insidiously ensures the FCC will never be able to fully grasp the harm it may have unleashed on the internet ecosystem."
Michael O'Rielly, a Republican commissioner also appointed by Obama, said he supports the overturning of net-neutrality rules, calling the FCC's approach a "well-reasoned and soundly justified order."
O'Rielly said he is not persuaded that "heavy handed" rules are needed to prevent "imaginary harm," and that the internet "has functioned without net neutrality rules for far longer than it has without them."
Addressing criticism that the FCC's process was tainted by a large number of fake comments, O'Rielly said the agency is "required to consider and respond to significant comments."
Some comments, he said, to laughter in the room, "referred to me as a potato." He clarified that these comments had also no bearing on the agency's vote.