US regulators have voted to slash Obama-era rules which stopped broadband providers from blocking some websites or charging others more for speeding up service, in a highly contentious move which is likely to spark legal challenges.
It marks a major victory for the Republicans who had pledged they would overturn the regulations, and is the most significant action that has been taken by Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Ajit Pai since taking over the post eleven months ago.
The FCC voted 3-to-2 to roll back the rules.
Mr Pai said now was the "time to restore internet freedom. We are restoring the light-touch framework that has governed the internet for most of its existence."
With the removal of the so-called net neutrality regulations, internet providers will now be allowed to charge websites more for a better service or will be able to discriminate against websites in competition with services the cable company owns.
Q&A | Net Neutrality
This will mean, for example, that Verizon, owner of Yahoo and AOL, will be legally able to block rival Google or charge it extra fees, if it discloses it has done so, once the laws are repealed. It would not have been able to do this under the net neutrality regulations.
The changes will not be enforced for at least the next two months.
Writing on its Twitter page, streaming service Netflix said it was "disappointed in the decision to gut #NetNeutrality protections that ushered in an unprecedented era of innovation, creativity & civic engagement. This is the beginning of a longer legal battle. Netflix stands w/ innovators, large & small, to oppose this misguided FCC order."
These comments were echoed by web company trade group the Internet Association, which said: "Having clear, legally sustainable rules in place finally established rules of the road and provided legal certainty."
This is an egregious attack on our democracy. The end of #NetNeutrality protections means that the internet will be for sale to the highest bidder. When our democratic institutions are already in peril, we must do everything we can to stop this decision from taking effect. https://t.co/8GGrJFMdrU— Bernie Sanders (@SenSanders) December 14, 2017
However, Mr Pai said the move was likely to spur broadband providers AT&T and Comcast to "offer people a wider variety of service options", improving competition in the market and spurring them to invest more in their networks.
Reports have suggested that currently around 50m households in the US are only able to access one broadband company which offers a high-speed service.
Comcast's senior executive vice-president, David Cohen, said: "This is not the end of net neutrality. Despite repeated distortions and biased information, our internet service is not going to change. Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open internet today, tomorrow, and in the future. Period."
However, the decision is set to be met with legal challenges. On Thursday evening, New York attorney general Eric Schneiderman had already said he would be leading a lawsuit challenging the removal of the regulations.