The Federal Communications Commission voted on Thursday to eliminate the U.S. government’s net neutrality rules, opening the door for telecom giants like AT&T, Charter, Comcast* and Verizon to block or slow down access to websites and prioritize their own music, movies and other content offerings over their competitors.

Under the leadership of Chairman Ajit Pai — and with only the backing of the agency’s Republican members — the repeal newly frees telecom companies from federal regulation, unravels a signature accomplishment of the Obama administration and shifts the responsibility of overseeing the web to another federal agency that some critics see as too weak to be effective.

In practice, it means the U.S. government no longer will have rules on its books that require internet providers to treat all web traffic equally. The likes of AT&T and Verizon will be limited in some ways — they can face penalties if they try to undermine their rivals, for example — but they won’t be subject to preemptive, bright-line restrictions on how they manage their networks.

Meanwhile, the FCC’s repeal will open the door for broadband providers to charge third parties, like tech giants, for faster delivery of their web content. Even though the FCC will require telecom companies to be transparent about these arrangements, critics contend these so-called “fast lanes” will limit consumers’ choice in services like video streaming — and harm startups that simply can’t afford to pay such tolls to ISPs.

To be sure, the FCC’s vote Thursday is the beginning of the fight, not the end. Soon, a wide array of opponents, including left-leaning consumer advocates and their Silicon Valley allies, are expected to sue the agency in response. They also plan to press the U.S. Congress to enact a new net neutrality law.

For now, though, the vote for repeal is a victory for Pai, his fellow Republicans on the FCC and regulation-wary telecom giants. They each argue that they support net neutrality but feel the rules adopted under former President Barack Obama are so heavy handed that they crimped investment, stalling major upgrades to high-speed internet and other innovations.

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By Expat