With a bang of the gavel, the internet in the U.S. now has ground rules and a "referee on the field" to enforce them.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted today in Washington to regulate internet service like a public good, the way it has been treated in Canada for years.

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Members of the audience applaud after Federal Communications Commission vote at Net Neutrality hearing in Washington. The commission voted Thursday to treat internet like a public utility, in line with Canadian rules. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

"The internet must remain open. We will protect the values of an open internet, both in the last mile as well as at the point of interconnection," FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said at the long-awaited hearing on net neutrality — the concept that all online traffic must be equally accessible.

"The internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform on the planet," Wheeler said. "It's simply too important to be left without rules and without a referee on the field."

The ruling delivers a blow to senior Republicans and large U.S. cable providers such as Comcast and Verizon, which poured $44.2 million US into lobbying efforts to allow some internet users to pay for zippier connectivity.

Grassroots activists had mobilized online to oppose such preferential treatment for "fast lane" access, with more than four million people filing public grievances to the FCC.

Thursday's long-awaited vote, which passed 3-2 in favour of net neutrality, ended the debate.

However, the broadband industry has hinted that it may challenge the decision in court.

In a statement following the vote, Verizon's senior vice president of public policy Michael Glover slammed the ruling as "badly antiquated," characterizing it as a regulatory overreach that would restrict internet service providers from offering the best access.

Reclassifying as public utility

Stricter regulations, Glover warned, "will have unintended negative consequences for consumers and various parts of the Internet ecosystem for years to come."

The FCC session was cause for celebration for Josh Tabish, a Vancouver-based campaign manager with the nonprofit public internet advocacy group OpenMedia.org.

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In advance of the FCC's landmark decision on net neutrality, internet freedom group OpenMedia set up a 'Jumbotron' in Washington broadcasting public appeals to keep the internet neutral. (Courtesy OpenMedia.org)

"We did it! It's over," he said, crediting an outpouring of public reaction against preferential treatment for today's FCC outcome.

"When rules are proposed that favour a small handful of powerful telecom conglomerates at the expense of everyone else, we can coalesce to fight that," he said.

'The carriers really thought they had this issue won.' - Michael Geist, Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law.

Abolishing net neutrality would have meant some websites hosting their own material could slow to a crawl.

If Netflix experienced stuttering video playback, for example, the internet company would have had to shell out for fast-lane access.

The FCC vote means it will reclassify the internet as a public utility rather than as an "information service," which is subject to less regulation.

'The internet freaked out'

The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission adopted that approach to net neutrality in 2009, and Canada has strong net neutrality rules governed by Internet Traffic Management Practices.

The rules prevent throttling, establishment of paid priority fast lanes or slow lanes, and website blocking.

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Pro-net neutrality internet activists rally in Los Angeles. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to reclassify the internet as a public utility, prohibiting internet service providers from charging websites extra fees for faster connectivity. (Jonathan Alcorn/Reuters)

When the big U.S. cable providers succeeded last year in having a D.C. appeals court strike down open internet rules, "the internet freaked out collectively," Tabish said.

Many users had adopted an "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" mindset on internet policy, he said.

A wrinkle in the previous rules came down to an 81-year-old piece of legislation from the Roosevelt era.

"The rules weren't founded on Title II of the Communications Act," Tabish explained, referring to the 1934 regulations covering common carriage rules "going all the way back to the telegraph and telephone networks."

By now reclassifying internet broadband as a Title II service — effectively making the internet a public utility — web access should be "bulletproof" against meddling by internet service providers, Tabish said.

Momentum swing

FCC commissioners opposing net neutrality reiterated arguments at Thursday's session that stricter regulation would put a chokehold on free enterprise and lead to higher taxation.

While momentum appeared at first to be on their side of the debate, the tide turned in recent months.

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In Canada, internet access is already treated like a telecommunications service, but in the U.S., it's considered an 'information service,' which is not as strictly regulated. (Shutterstock)

"The carriers really thought they had this issue won," said Michael Geist, a professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law.

So how did things begin to tip in favour of net neutrality?

Geist credits "a strong public voice" online, as well as HBO host John Oliver's comedy segment explaining the issue.

"The public spoke very loudly, and it's been well chronicled that many of the smaller internet companies began to speak out aggressively as well," he said.

In the FCC hearing, Wheeler himself closed with a "shout-out" to the four million Americans who urged the commission to stand up for net neutrality, and acknowledged a level internet landscape could be an incubator for the next big idea. 

"One thing we can all agree on up here is we cannot possibly know what's going to come up next on the internet," the chairman said.

"We want to encourage innovation by making sure there's ground rules. Those ground rules are now in place."