WASHINGTON — Democrats are making a big push to pass net neutrality legislation that would restore rules of the road for the internet, after the the Trump-era FCC repealed most of the 2015 Obama-era regulations.
The three-page bill would reinstate provisions to prohibit internet service providers from the blocking or throttling of web content, or from selling “fast lanes” to content companies to get special and speedier access to consumers. But the legislation would also return the FCC to the role of “cop on the beat,” as some Democrats describe it, with authority to crack down on instances when internet providers discriminate in the way that they handle web traffic.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer appeared at a Wednesday morning event on Capitol Hill to unveil the legislation, called the Save the Internet Act, which was quickly condemned by industry groups representing major internet providers.
But Democrats, with their new House majority, see net neutrality as an issue that enjoys substantial popular support, and a number of lawmakers described it as protecting consumers from the whims of big cable and telecom companies. A hearing on the legislation is scheduled for March 12, and Pelosi said she expects to bring it to the floor “in a matter of weeks.”
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Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) told reporters that he thinks that the momentum of House passage will boost its chances in the Senate, where Republicans have the majority. Last May, Democrats were able to get three Republicans — Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, John Kennedy of Louisiana, and Susan Collins of Maine — to vote for a resolution to reverse the FCC’s repeal. But that resolution went nowhere in the House, which was still under House control.
Even if the legislation were to clear Congress, it would still have to be signed by President Trump. The White House has indicated that he supports the FCC’s move to roll back the net neutrality regulations.
Republicans, meanwhile, have proposed a series of their own internet bills, including ones that prohibit blocking, throttling, or paid prioritization. But many net neutrality advocates oppose those bills, as they do not reclassify the internet as a common carrier, a regulatory maneuver seen as essential to establishing the FCC’s legal footing to impose robust regulations.
Gigi Sohn, an FCC official at the time the 2015 rules were passed, said net neutrality protections and the FCC’s authority over broadband service “are supported by overwhelming numbers of Americans across the political spectrum.” Democrats touted their support for strong net neutrality rules in last year’s midterm elections, seeing it as an issue that would resonate with younger voters.
The Internet Association, which represents large internet companies like Google and Facebook, said that it supported the Democrats’ legislation, but said that it was open to bipartisan efforts “that restore strong, enforceable” protections.
The Democrats’ action is only one area where the Trump-era FCC is being challenged in its repeal. Last month, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments from state government officials, public interest groups, and other associations who argued that the FCC’s rollback ignored millions of comments in favor of the net neutrality protections and failed to follow administrative procedures. Since the repeal, five states have passed their own net neutrality protections, even though the FCC also made it clear that state laws would be preempted by the federal action.
After Democrats unveiled the bill, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai argued that the repeal “has proven wrong the many hysterical predictions of doom from 2017, most notably the fantasy that market-based regulation would bring about ‘the end of the Internet as we know it.’ The Internet in America today is free and vibrant, and the main thing it needs to be saved from is heavy-handed regulation from the 1930s.”
The Internet and Television Association, which represents major cable providers of internet service, said in a statement that the legislation is “a highly controversial, partisan proposal that puts the internet under heavy-handed government control.”
What wasn’t lost on some Democrats was how long the issue has been debated in D.C. policy circles, the FCC, and among lawmakers. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) joked that it has lasted since “shortly after the earth cooled.”
It may be awhile longer before the policy fight is settled.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat who opposed the repeal and who attended Wednesday’s event, said in a statement she’ll “keep raising a ruckus to support net neutrality and I’m glad so many others are too.”