A top US regulatory official on Wednesday unveiled plans to roll back so-called "net neutrality" rules that require broadband firms to treat all online traffic equally.
The announcement by Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai, appointed by President Donald Trump, signals a new round of wrangling over internet regulatory policy by seeking to reverse rules aimed at avoiding the emergence of "fast" and "slow" lanes at the discretion of carriers.
Pai, speaking to a Washington forum, said the 2015 FCC order -- which is being challenged in court by major broadband firms -- did not deliver on its promise but rather added new regulatory burdens which stifled investment.
"Did these fast lanes and slow lanes exist? No," Pai said in his speech.
"The truth of the matter is that we decided to abandon successful policies solely because of hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom."
Pai said he will offer a reversal of the 2015 order, to be voted on by the FCC next month, to return to "a light-touch regulatory framework," which he argued has "enabled the internet to grow and evolve beyond almost anyone's expectations."
Pai's announcement drew immediate fire from consumer advocates and others who claimed it will allow big broadband firms such as AT&T and Verizon to choke off or slow access to competing "edge" services like video operators Netflix and Amazon.
Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner who now advises the activist group Common Cause, said Pai is bowing to pressure from cable and telecom industry lobbyists and going against consumer interests.
"Chairman Pai is kissing the ring of the Big Money lobbyists who too often call the shots in the Trump administration," Copps said in a statement.
"Ending net neutrality would be a body blow to the open dialogue upon which successful self-government depends. It would be a red light for democracy and a green light for cable and telecom giants to control where we go and what we do on the internet."
Net neutrality has been the subject of legal and political battles for over a decade, with both sides claiming to represent a "free and open" internet.
Doug Brake, of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, a think tank which often opposes strong regulation of tech firms, welcomed Pai's announcement.
"The internet was wonderful and open before (former chairman Tom) Wheeler's rules were put in place in 2015, and it will be wonderful and open if Pai succeeds in making some much-needed changes," Brake said in a statement.
The neutrality rules, Brake said, created "a messy regulatory framework that we should shed," which effectively made the internet "a heavily regulated public utility."