In a landmark decision, a divided Federal Communications Commission Thursday approved “net neutrality,” giving the federal government a major role in setting the rules of the road for Internet traffic, a move that critics warned will impose broad regulations affecting devices such as laptops and smartphones and open the door to government oversight of what goes on the Web.
Internet advocacy groups hailed the rules — strongly backed by President Obama — as a populist victory over the corporate interests that have built and maintained the Web’s infrastructure.
Republicans and companies such as Comcast and Verizon denounced the move as, in one telecommunications executive’s words, “a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors.”
The commissioners approved the plan in a party-line vote of 3-2. The majority Democrats moved ahead with the proposal to reclassify broadband as a utility, giving the commission more regulatory power over Internet service providers.
“The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. “The action we take today is about the protection of Internet openness. Today is a red-letter day for Internet freedom.”
Proponents say the rules will give the government power to prevent companies from creating winners and losers on the Internet, forbidding providers from supplying faster or slower service based on consumers’ ability to pay.
Republicans said the move will lead to utility-style taxes and inhibit competition.
Commissioner Ajit Pai said the agency took the action “for one reason, and one reason only: President Obama told us to do so.”
“More new taxes are coming,” said Mr. Pai, a former top attorney for Verizon. “It’s just a matter of when.”
In a statement, Mr. Obama said the vote “will protect innovation and create a level playing field for the next generation of entrepreneurs.” He thanked the more than 4 million Americans who wrote to the FCC during the past year.
In essence, the FCC plan would reclassify largely unregulated Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast and Sprint as utilities along the lines of the old telephone landline companies, giving the agency far greater say in how the companies operate. The big fear was that the ISPs would violate “net neutrality” over time by charging larger, deep-pocketed users more to get faster and more reliable service than others.
Opponents said the fears are overblown and the proposed cure — more government regulation — was worse than the disease.
In November, Mr. Obama publicly pressured the FCC to move forward with a more robust regulatory framework than the proposal that Mr. Wheeler was considering. Republicans accused the White House of developing the plan behind closed doors and leaning on the quasi-independent agency to approve it.
“The FCC is supposed to be an independent agency, but the White House has once again meddled where it shouldn’t,” said House Speaker John A. Boehner, Ohio Republican. “More mandates and regulations on American innovation and entrepreneurship are not the answer, and that’s why Republicans will continue our efforts to stop this misguided scheme.”
It was unclear what steps congressional Republicans will take, having essentially conceded the battle this week to find a speedy legislative alternative to the FCC’s rules.
The FCC’s move reclassifies high-speed Internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Cable and telecommunications companies that vow to fight the rules in court say the action will lead to greater regulation, discourage investment and curtail consumers’ options.
Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T are among the biggest opponents of the plan. They spent more than $44 million combined on lobbying efforts last year, taking aim at net neutrality as one of their top priorities. Social media powerhouses such as Facebook and Skimm supported the proposal.
Democrats and progressive activists hailed the FCC’s vote. Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, called the decision “the fruition of a decadelong fight by those of us who believe in preserving the Internet as a level playing field.”
“Protecting net neutrality through reclassification is the kind of big, bold idea that is hugely popular with Americans of all political stripes,” Mr. Green said.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, said the plan “recognizes that net neutrality is essential to our economy and our democracy.”
“Communities across the country will see the benefits of new broadband competition fostered by the FCC’s vote for years to come,” she said.
In addition to warnings about the regulatory impact on the Internet economy, many Republicans said the move was another example of Mr. Obama’s executive overreaching.
FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly accused the administration of forcing the agency to “dictate an outcome for pure political purposes” and called the plan “half-baked, illogical, internally inconsistent and indefensible.”
“I cannot support this monumental and unlawful power grab,” Mr. O’Rielly said.
Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said the regulations will “strike a blow to the future of innovation in our country.”
“The Obama administration needs to get beyond its 1930s rotary-telephone mindset and embrace the future,” Mr. McConnell said. “That means encouraging innovation, not suffocating it under the weight of an outdated bureaucracy and poorly named regulations like this one.”
Sen. John Thune, South Dakota Republican and chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, said the FCC and the White House haven’t worked with Republicans on net neutrality rules.
“We have not found a willing partner in the FCC or the White House,” he said. “The only place to get clear rules is through legislative action.”
Mr. Thune said Republicans haven’t abandoned efforts to find a legislative solution.
“Any claims that Republicans have conceded or surrendered to the Obama administration’s power grab of the Internet through FCC action is a mischaracterization of our ongoing efforts,” Mr. Thune said. “One way or another, I am committed to moving a legislative solution, preferably bipartisan, to stop monopoly-era phone regulations that harm Internet consumers and innovation.”
About a dozen executives of technology companies from across the nation will visit Congress next week to discuss with lawmakers the detrimental effects of reclassifying the Internet as a Title II service, according to the industry group Broadband for America. The group said it will urge bipartisan legislation to establish net neutrality rules.
Broadband for America honorary Co-chairmen John Sununu and Harold Ford Jr. said allowing the FCC’s decision to stand will result in “years of legal uncertainty that will chill investment and innovation in the most successful sector of our economy while likely raising new taxes and fees on middle-class families.”
⦁ Hannah Crites contributed to this report.