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What’s Next for Net Neutrality: A Summer Battle

Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), tweeted out one of his fears on Friday as media attention fixates on the drama of the Trump White House.

“Sorry for yelling guys,” he wrote. “BUT IN THE MIDDLE OF THIS S@#%SHOW THEY ARE STILL TRYING TO TAKE AWAY YOUR HEALTHCARE AND RUIN THE INTERNET.”

He was referring to the Trump-led effort to repeal Obamacare and the FCC move to roll back the foundation for its net neutrality rules.

The distraction of a potential all-consuming White House scandal is of concern to advocates banking on a public outcry over healthcare and the internet, in particular net neutrality, an issue that can easily get into the policy weeds.

So far, many people have noticed.

More than 2 million people have weighed in on the latest FCC proposal, which would repeal the commission’s 2015 designation of internet service as a common carrier, or “Title II” in regulatory terms. To many net neutrality advocates, such a move would weaken and undermine the rules, which prohibit ISPs from discriminating in how they deliver content to the consumer.

It’s even caught the attention of a few celebrities, like Francis Ford Coppola, who warned of giving major corporations control of the internet, and William Shatner, who quoted Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and tweeted, “Net neutrality must stay!”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says that when it comes to his proposal, the commission “will follow the facts and the law where they take us.” The proposal, he said, “is the start of a new chapter in the public discussion about how we can best maintain a free and open internet while making sure that ISPs have strong incentives to bring next-generation networks and services to all Americans.”

Still, Pai is a longtime critic of the FCC’s current approach, and with fellow Republican commissioner Michael O’Rielly, he has the votes to repeal.

So what happens next? If it is anything like the last net neutrality battle, the 90 days ahead will be marked by strong rhetoric and powerful rebuttal, and it may get a bit raucous.

Open Comment Period: The FCC proposal — which you can see in full here — is now in a period of public comment. The deadline is July 17, and the cutoff point for reply comments is Aug. 16. Pai has said that he expects a final vote later this year.

About 4 million comments were received by the FCC the last time it took up net neutrality, a reflection of just how charged the issue had become. It was a contrast to previous efforts by the FCC to establish rules, when the debate largely centered around D.C. policy circles.

Some groups, like Free Press, are collecting comments to be delivered to the FCC’s site, while “Last Week Tonight” host John Oliver established a URL, gofccyourself.com, to make it easier to file comments. Pai unveiled his proposal to FreedomWorks, a conservative group which, along with other organizations pushing for deregulation, are likely to campaign heavily for the repeal.

The question, though, is whether this becomes in any way a liability for lawmakers on Capitol Hill. When Congress rolled back Obama-era FCC privacy rules earlier this year, Republican lawmakers saw some backlash, including angry constituents at town halls, and there is some reason to believe that net neutrality will become an issue with constituents this summer.

Congress. Just before the FCC voted on Thursday to put its proposal out for public comment, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) called for bipartisan legislation. “It is time for Congress to finally settle this matter,” he said of the issue, which has raged as a D.C. debate since the early 2000s.

Democrats, though, are sounding the alarm about the FCC’s proposal, and there are few indications that they are about to sit down and hash out a compromise. They see the Republican-led effort to roll back the privacy rules as a misstep that may be used against the GOP in next year’s midterm elections, and the same may be true when it comes to net neutrality.

Thune has suggested that the closer that the FCC gets to repealing the rules, the more willing Democrats may be to sitting down and hashing out a piece of legislation. But lawmakers who are willing to do that also will have to contend with an array of public internet groups and other activists, as well as major Internet firms, if the end result is loaded with potential loopholes.

Courts. If the FCC goes ahead and rolls back Title II — which seems likely — it will likely face a court challenge.

This week, Abigail Slater, the general counsel of the Internet Association, which represents major companies like Facebook, Google and Amazon, said that the burden will be on the Pai-led FCC to show why, after just two years, it is necessary to reverse course on net neutrality. Both sides now have competing sets of numbers to prove their case that the 2015 order either had no effect on investment in the Internet, or that it has hindered it. As much as net neutrality may again draw interest well outside the Beltway this summer, if it ends up in the courts it will likely become a battle of policy procedure and reliable data.

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