Net neutrality: Could anything stop the repeal of the Open Internet regulations?

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Time is running out on the federal regulations that prevent Internet service providers such as AT&T and Comcast from blocking or slowing online content.

Those 2015 rules, which also prohibit Internet providers from favoring some content for payment, are set to be replaced Thursday by a vote during the Federal Communications Commission's monthly meeting.

With three Republican votes on the five-member commission, those so-called net neutrality rules are expected to be reversed with a new measure: the Restoring Internet Freedom order, which instead requires Net companies to disclose any blocking or prioritization of their own content or from their partners.

Supporters of the earlier set of rules, passed two years ago by a Democrat-led FCC, continue to voice their concerns, hoping for a postponement or cancellation of Thursday's vote.

An online protest this week included a constant wave of tweets from individuals asking the FCC and Congress to keep the current rules. Sites such as Funny or Die, Mozilla and Reddit supported a "Break the Internet" campaign on their home pages.

In addition to 39 senators — 37 Democrats and two Independents — who wrote to FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Tuesday asking that the "reckless" plan be abandoned, five Republican members have expressed concerns, too. And 118 House Democrats signed their own letter Wednesday asking for a delay, too.

In a separate letter Tuesday, Rep. Mike Coffman (R-Colo.) asked Pai to delay the vote and let Congress pass legislation.

And one member, Rep. Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.), asked to address the FCC before its vote and was turned down. However, should the new Net order be adopted, McNerney plans to co-sponsor legislation from Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) to overturn the measure. 

Speaking on Sirius XM Wednesday, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she had been seeking a postponement of the vote. "I am hopeful," said Clyburn, one of two Democrats on the commission.

Clyburn also tweeted a humorous alternative proposal to the commission, which crossed out nearly all the wording of the proposal to simply affirm the 2015 rules. 

A survey released Tuesday suggests the public strongly approves of the current rules. More than three-fourths (83%) of the 1,077 surveyed by the Program for Public Consultation at the University of Maryland opposed repealing the current rules, according to the findings released by the nonpartisan group Voice of the People.

Regardless, the vote is set for Thursday morning at the FCC meeting, which begins at 10:30 a.m. ET.

Technically, Congress can take no action preventing the FCC from voting Thursday. Instead, it can only ask the agency to postpone or cancel the vote, and then try to pass a law governing Internet access.

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., said Tuesday Congress needs to act. "There is obviously immense passion that follows the issue of net neutrality.  Americans care deeply about preserving a free and open Internet.  As do I and so many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle," said Thune on the Senate floor Tuesday. He also commended Pai on his work as chairman on the issue.

"Congressional action is the only way to solve the endless back and forth on net neutrality rules that we’ve seen over the past several years," Thune said.

Clamor has accompanied this issue for several years. The 2015 rules, shepherded by Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, were passed a year after a federal court overturned the agency's rules from 2010.

Supported by President Obama, the 2015 rules treated Internet service providers (ISPs) similarly to public utilities such as electric companies. But Pai, who opposed the measure at the time, has called  those regulations heavy-handed and too restrictive on ISPs.

The new proposal gives ISPs leeway to experiment and will spur innovation and investment, he says. “Instead of saddling the Internet with heavy-handed regulations, we will work together to take targeted action against bad actors," Pai said Monday in a statement on how the FCC and Federal Trade Commission will protect consumers.

Interest in the issue fueled a record number of public comments to the FCC: about 23 million. However, millions were found to be fake, with some submitted by bots and others sent from Russian email addresses.

The 2015 rules faced, and survived, a court challenge and these new rules will likely face one, too, if they are passed Thursday as expected.

That will result in a shift in the balance of online power towards ISPs and away from content providers, something that could swing the other way in another three years should a new administration take over the White House.

"Legally we are always going to have this problem until Congress clarifies what the FCC’s authority should be over broadband providers, in particular," said Dan Lyons, a professor at the Boston College Law School. "The more distrustful you are of broadband providers, the more likely you are to think we need more regulation in this area."

Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.

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