WASHINGTON — A resolution to restore the FCC’s net neutrality rules passed the Senate on Wednesday, giving Democrats a victory on what they see as a potent issue going into the 2018 midterms.
The Senate voted 52-47 on the resolution. Three Republicans joined with Democrats — Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
If it is ultimately passed by Congress and signed by President Donald Trump — a big if — the net neutrality rules that the FCC had in place since 2015 would be restored. The agency’s Republican majority voted late last year to repeal them.
“We consider this one of the major issues of the 2018 campaign,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters after the vote. Although net neutrality has been an issue largely fought among lobbyists, policy wonks and activists, Schumer said it will resonate because “people understand cable and the problems with it, and they don’t want the internet to become cable.”
In December, the FCC voted 3-2 to roll back many of the existing net neutrality rules, including those prohibiting internet service providers from blocking or throttling of content, or from selling so-called “fast lanes” for speedier access to consumers.
The repeal goes into effect on June 11.
The FCC’s Republican majority, led by chairman Ajit Pai, claims that the rules were choking off investment and imposed service regulation on broadband akin to that placed on phone companies in the 1930s. The FCC also repealed the regulatory underpinning for the rules, in which internet service was classified as a common carrier.
The FCC’s move stirred opposition in Congress and in statehouses. Lawmakers in California, for instance, are weighing legislation, while a coalition of 23 state attorneys general are seeking to turn back the FCC’s action in court.
In a statement, Pai said it was “disappointing that Senate Democrats forced this resolution through by a narrow margin. But ultimately, I’m confident that their effort to reinstate heavy-handed government regulation of the Internet will fail. The internet was free and open before 2015, when the prior FCC buckled to political pressure from the White House and imposed utility-style regulation on the internet.”
The Senate resolution — led by Sen. Edward Markey (D-Mass.) — was brought to the floor under rules that enable Congress to overturn agency actions within a certain timeframe and by majority vote.
On the Senate floor, Markey said “this is a defining vote, the most important vote that we are going to have in this generation on net neutrality.”
“It goes right to the heart of our identity as a free and open society,” he said.
Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) said the interest in the issue crosses geographic lines. “For rural America, without the Markey resolution, it means that the net moves along at a snail’s pace. It means rural businesses have a harder time getting off the ground and reaching customers,” he said.
The Senate’s move may end up being merely symbolic. It must pass in the GOP-controlled House, and it also must secure the signature of Trump. The White House has expressed its support for the FCC’s move in December to repeal the net neutrality rules, and Trump has often touted his ability to roll back government regulations.
Rep. Mike Doyle (D-Pa.) said he planned to file a discharge petition on Thursday — that is the paperwork to try to trigger the process for a vote in the House. He said they currently have 163 members signed on in favor of the resolution to restore the rules.
Democrats pointed to the votes of three Republicans as a sign that the issue crosses party lines and has particularly resonance among younger voters. They could be key to the party’s chances of retaking Congress in the midterms.
“This is their issue. This is what brings them out to vote, and they know about this. You are going to see a grassroots effort, all across the country, to ask members, why they can’t at least have a vote,” he said. “The pressure is going to be on every House member to say where they stand on it.”
Schumer said “millions of calls” were placed to Senate offices over the issue, including those hoping to sway Republicans to join Democrats in support of the resolution.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said she voted for the resolution out of what she called “frustration.”
“I’m not interested in the politics of the fundraising that goes on by being able to amp people up about … net neutrality policy,” she told reporters. “I want to get to policy that is going to be consistent, that industry can count on, that families can count on.”
She added, “Right now we go back and forth — who’s basically running the FCC? Is it a Republican chairman or a Democrat chairman, because depending on what it is, it seems like we have a different approach. That is not helping anybody. It is not helping the folks in my state who have limited access in the first place. There is a statement that is repeated a lot — why are we arguing over net neutrality, when we aren’t even sure we are going to have a net?”
She said her office had received a large volume of calls over the issue, but that is was roughly split in sentiment.
Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, said the resolution was a “bizarre exercise” that isn’t “going anywhere.” He called it a “political, partisan charade.”
He noted that he proposed legislation back in 2015 that would ban blocking and throttling, as well as paid prioritization, but he has so far been unable to get a co-sponsor from the Democratic side.
He said the debate has been driven by “fear-mongering, hypotheticals, misdirection and outright false claims.” He also said what is happening is that the issue has been “bouncing back and forth” as the FCC’s ideological makeup shifts with each presidential administration.
The FCC did not roll back rules that require internet providers to disclose their traffic management practices, with complaints largely handled through the Federal Trade Commission. Net neutrality advocates believe that the FTC’s authority to do so is weaker than that of the FCC.
Internet providers have characterized net neutrality as an issue that has yet to become a problem.
Some of those companies are seizing on the latest debate to call for rules that apply not just to them, but internet companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. AT&T’s Tim McKone, its executive vice president of federal relations, said they favor legislation “that applies to all internet companies and guarantees neutrality, transparency, openness, non-discrimination and privacy protections for all internet users.”
FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who opposed the repeal of the 2015 rules, said the Senate vote was “a sign that the fight for internet freedom is far from over. I’ll keep raising a ruckus to support net neutrality and I hope others will, too.”
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