Senate Votes to Save Net Neutrality Rules

WASHINGTON (CN) – Senate Democrats successfully passed a resolution reversing the Federal Communication Commission’s hotly contested repeal of net neutrality rules, at the very least giving their party a potential rallying issue for the 2018 mid-term elections with the Republican-controlled House being unlikely to take the measure up.

Wednesday’s 52-47 vote, backed by all Senate Democrats and Republicans Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, plus independent Sens. Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, is not expected to pass in the House.

Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass. introduced the Congressional Review Act resolution to overturn the repeal in February.

Though the resolution succeeded Wednesday, Republicans control the House 236 to 193, and Democrats would need at least 25 Republicans to cross the aisle in order to even bring it up for a vote.. If the bill were to somehow make it through the House, it would still need final approval from President Donald Trump, who would likely veto it.

Katharine Trendacosta, a policy analyst at the Electronic Frontier Foundation told Courthouse News that a decision to kill net neutrality would go against the vast majority of public opinion.

“86 percent of Americans support net neutrality and oppose the FCC’s repeal of the 2015 net neutrality protections,” Trendacosta said, citing a University of Maryland poll taken shortly after the FCC launched the reversal. “Because of the popularity of net neutrality, it is very difficult for anyone to say they don’t support net neutrality. That means they claim to want legislation that doesn’t contain all the protections people actually want and need.”

Wednesday’s vote set “good baseline,” she said, for any future legislation where issues like content blocking, throttling or paid prioritization would be up for debate again.

Net neutrality is the idea that the internet should be classified as a public utility. In 2015, under then-President Barack Obama, the FCC passed the Open Internet Order which barred internet service providers from throttling online access speed or setting premium fees for different levels of access to content.

But in December, the Republican-controlled FCC board voted 3-2 to overturn the order. The commission’s new chairman Ajit Pai, a former attorney for Verizon appointed by President Donald Trump, championed its reversal.

Pai argued that the Obama-era commission was too heavy handed with its regulation and stifled small internet service providers. Pai has also argued that content companies, like Netflix or Hulu, have restricted competition as a result of the order.

“When there’s less investment that means fewer next-generation networks are built. That means less competition. That means fewer jobs for Americans building those networks. And that means more Americans are left on the wrong side of the digital divide,” Pai said in an announcement last year after the reversal succeeded.

But the Democrats on the FCC board, Jessica Rosenworcel and Mignon Clyburn, their counterparts in the Senate, and groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation say Pai’s position isn’t about increasing innovation or competition.

Instead, they say it’s a favor to large telecommunication companies that want to take advantage of a more restrictive playing field while reaping greater profit and gaining greater control over consumers.

“When internet service providers say they support [net neutrality,] they often frame it as support for some [of its] principles, but conspicuously leave out [details like] paid prioritization which would allow them to charge more,” Trendacosta said.

Following December’s repeal vote, Rosenworcel didn’t mince words: “[ISPs] will have the right to discriminate and favor the internet traffic of those companies with whom they have pay-for-play arrangements and the right to consign all others to a slow and bumpy road. Now our broadband providers will tell you they will never do these things. They say just trust us. But know this: they have the technical ability and business incentive to discriminate and manipulate your internet traffic.”

“It’s very hard to say the public should trust their ISPs not to violate net neutrality principles, as they actually have a history of doing so even when the FCC had rules against it,” Trendacosta said Wednesday. “There are some small independent ISPs that have a history of making privacy and net neutrality a priority, and if people have the option of patronizing them instead, they should. In the absence of rules and laws, competition is key to giving people the ability to choose a net neutral provider.”

But with that said she added, more than 50 percent of Americans don’t have a choice for high speed internet.

“If an ISP chooses to change its terms of service to not prohibit blocking or throttling, etc., customers will be in trouble,” she said.

After the Senate vote, Pai called the outcome “disappointing,” but said he was confident the resolution would fail in the House.

“Moreover, contrary to the scare tactics employed by Senate Democrats, which earned three Pinocchios from the Washington Post’s fact-checker, our light-touch approach will deliver better, faster, and cheaper Internet access and more broadband competition to the American people — something that millions of consumers desperately want and something that should be a top priority,” Pai said. “The prior Administration’s regulatory overreach took us in the opposite direction, reducing investment in broadband networks and particularly harming small Internet service providers in rural and lower-income areas. Our approach will help promote digital opportunity—that is, making high-speed Internet access available to every single American so that they can be participants in, rather than spectators of, our digital economy.”

Wednesday’s vote stopped the order from going into effect on  June 11, the repeals formal start date.

In the meantime, more than 20 states have filed lawsuits to save the standard and in places like New Jersey, Washington and California, state legislators have proposed legislation establishing net neutrality rules within their respective state borders.

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