The FCC voted May 18 to begin undoing Obama-era Internet regulations that disallowed Internet providers from favoring or blocking websites. (Video: Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

The Republican-led Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to begin undoing a key decision from the Obama era that could relax regulations on Internet providers.

The move highlights the uphill battle for Democrats and consumer advocates, who say that weaker rules could allow Internet service providers to abuse their position as gatekeepers between customers and the rest of the Internet. The current net neutrality rules make it illegal for Internet service providers to block or slow down websites for consumers.

ISPs have argued that softening the rules would help them to continue upgrading their networks and find new ways of making money.

The vote enables the FCC to begin taking public feedback on its proposal, which could be revised and put to a final vote later this year.

By a 2-1 vote led by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency proposed to roll back a 2015 decision that regulated Internet providers more heavily, using some of the same rules the agency applies to phone companies. The proposal also suggests repealing the so-called “general conduct” rule that allows the FCC to investigate business practices of Internet providers that it suspects may be anti-competitive. And finally, the proposal asks whether the agency should eliminate the most high-profile parts of the net neutrality rules: The rules banning the blocking and slowing of websites, as well as the rule forbidding ISPs from charging websites extra fees.

“Today we propose to repeal utility-style regulation of the Internet,” said Pai. “The evidence strongly suggests this is the right way to go.”

The FCC's lone Democrat, Mignon Clyburn, said the decision to revisit the rules was merely the latest in a broader effort by Republicans to undercut its own mission.

“The endgame appears to be no-touch regulation,” said Clyburn, “and a wholesale destruction of the FCC's public interest authority in the 21st century.”

Republican lawmakers have proposed converting the FCC regulation into a bill, but Democrats — concerned that the results could be much weaker than the current rules — are instead gearing up for a grass roots battle similar to the kind that defeated the House Republican health care plan.

“This fight is just starting,” said Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), in a statement. “The public now has the opportunity to stand up, be heard, and influence the outcome. It will take millions of people standing up … to say that the Internet needs to stay free and open.”

Internet providers largely hailed the vote, which officially marks a first step toward looser regulations.

“The FCC under Chairman Pai’s leadership took an important step today toward returning to the regulatory framework that was so successful for so many years,” said Verizon in a statement.

Underlying the politics is a complex legal fight whose outcome will shape the future of business and the experience of using the Internet.

The transformation of Internet service into a basic necessity for many Americans has forced Internet providers to look elsewhere for growth. Many broadband companies view TV, film and online content as the answer: By buying up media firms, ISPs can create bigger bundles to sell to customers. They can also mine their customers' behavioral data and either sell those insights to marketers or use them for advertising purposes.

Consumer advocates fear that many of these new business practices may harm consumers or startups, particularly if large providers choose to privilege their own content — or that of favored partners — to the detriment of competing firms. Only strong, preemptive rules can ward off these harms, they argue.

But Pai and many Internet providers say that the rules are onerous and discourage companies from spending money on their networks to provide faster and better service. That charge has sparked a furious debate over how the commission's rules have affected broadband investment.

Lobbyists on both sides of the issue have produced dueling studies on the matter, each claiming to more accurately represent reality than the other.