By David Shepardson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is expected on Thursday to rescind rules aimed at ensuring a free and open internet, as protesters gathered to oppose the change.
Commission Chairman Ajit Pai's proposal marks a victory for internet service providers like AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc that opposed the regulations, popularly known as net neutrality rules, and hands them power over what web content consumers can access.
Democrats, Hollywood and companies like Google parent Alphabet Inc and Facebook Inc had urged Pai, a Republican appointed by U.S. President Donald Trump, not to rescind the Obama-era rules barring service providers from blocking, slowing access to or charging more for certain content.
Consumers are unlikely to see any immediate changes resulting from the rule change, but smaller startups 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 that they may engage in paid prioritization. They say consumers will see no change and argue that the largely unregulated internet worked fine in the two decades before the 2015 order was adopted.
Democrats point to polls showing the proposal is deeply unpopular and say they will ultimately prevail in protecting the rules, either in the courts or in U.S. Congress.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said in a written dissent released on Thursday that the decision grants internet providers "extraordinary new power" from the FCC.
"They have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic. And now this agency gives them the legal green light to go ahead," she said.
Several state attorneys general have said they will work to oppose the ruling, citing problems with comments made to the FCC during the public comment period. Other critics have said they will consider challenging what they consider to be weaker enforcement.
Net neutrality supporters rallied in front of the FCC building in Washington before the vote, and some Congress members were expected to join.
Amid chants of "Hey hey, ho ho, Chairman Pai has got to go!", several dozen people stood in the cold to hear activists speak out against the change.
Online protesters included celebrities like "Star Wars" actor Mark Hamill.
The 2015 rules were intended to give consumers equal access to web content and prevent broadband providers from favoring their own content. Pai proposes allowing those practices as long as they are disclosed.
Michael Powell, a former FCC chairman who heads a trade group representing major cable companies and broadcasters, told reporters earlier this week that internet providers would not block content because it would not make economic sense.
"They make a lot of money on an open internet," Powell said, adding it is "much more profitable" than a closed system. "This is not a pledge of good-heartedness, it's a pledge in the shareholders' interest."
A University of Maryland poll released this week found that more than 80 percent of respondents opposed the proposal. The survey of 1,077 registered voters was conducted online by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland from Dec. 6-8.
Democrats have said the absence of rules would be unacceptable and that they would work to overturn the proposal if it is approved. Advocates of the net neutrality rules plan a legal challenge.
Pai's proposal is "like letting the bullies develop their own playground rules," said Democratic Senator Ed Markey.
Many Republicans back Pai's proposal but want Congress to write net neutrality rules. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said the FCC would "return the internet to a consumer-driven marketplace free of innovation-stifling regulations."
A group of nearly 20 state attorneys general asked the FCC to delay the vote until the issue of fake comments is addressed.
(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Meredith Mazzilli)