The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will hold an initial vote on Thursday on a Republican plan to reverse the Obama administration's 2015 "net neutrality" order.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai disclosed in April the agency may withdraw "bright line" rules barring internet companies from blocking, throttling or giving "fast lanes" to some websites.
The debate over the future of the internet has received less attention than it did in 2015, with many focused on other issues such as President Donald Trump's May 9 firing of FBI director Jim Comey and its aftermath.
"In the rubble of this week, the FCC is formally starting the process of destroying net neutrality," Senator Brian Schatz, a Democrat, said on Wednesday.
A number of Democratic senators plan to attend a rally on Thursday outside the FCC meeting with opponents.
The other Republican on the FCC, which currently has three members, supports Pai. The public will have until mid-August to offer comments before the FCC votes on a final plan.
Pai said in April he wants the FCC to repeal the rules that reclassified internet service and tightly regulated providers as if they were utilities. He thinks the 2015 open internet rules were unnecessary and harm jobs and investment.
"We were not living in some digital dystopia before the partisan imposition of a massive plan hatched in Washington saved all of us," Pai said in April.
Pai wants public input on whether the FCC should keep its "bright line" rules, and said his decision would depend partly on the comments. He has not committed to retaining any rules, but said he favors an "open internet."
Facebook Inc, Alphabet and others back net neutrality rules, saying they guarantee equal access to the internet.
Broadband providers AT&T, Verizon Communications and Comcast oppose the 2015 order, saying it would discourage investment and innovation.
Internet providers insist they will not engage in blocking or throttling even in the absence of rules, but critics are skeptical. "That’s like asking a kid to 'voluntarily' swear not to stick his hands in the cookie jar. It just won’t happen," Senator Edward Markey, a Democrat, said on Wednesday.
Comcast, Charter Communications Inc and Altice NV's U.S. unit signed an advertisement Wednesday saying they are "committed to an open internet that gives you the freedom to be in charge of your online experience.... We do not block, throttle or otherwise impair your online activity."
(Reporting by David Shepardson; editing by Grant McCool)