In a monumental decision that will resonate through election season, the US Senate has voted 52-47 to reinstate the net neutrality protections the Federal Communications Commission decided to repeal last December.
For months, procedural red tape has delayed the full implementation of the FCC's decision to drop Title II protections that prevent internet service providers from blocking or throttling online content. Last week, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai confirmed that the repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order would go into effect on June 11. But Democrats put forth a resolution to use its power under the Congressional Review Act (CRA) to review new regulations by federal agencies through an expedited legislative process.
Under the CRA, only a simple majority is needed to pass legislation. With Republican Senator John McCain currently hospitalized and all Democrats on board, only a single Republican needed to vote in favour of restoring net neutrality rules. However, Senators Susan Collins, Joe Kennedy, and Lisa Murkowski all broke from their GOP colleagues and ensured that the resolution passed.
Initial remarks this morning kicked off with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that "this resolution takes us in the wrong direction," and insisting that it's a partisan attempt to drum up a campaign issue. (That last part is actually true.) McConnell didn't address any specifics about why he opposes the FCC net neutrality protections. Republican Senator Roger Wicker also voiced his opposition and expressed hope that senators would instead vote for watered-down legislation that Senator John Thune, a Republican who has received nearly $US1 ($1) million in donations from the telecom industry, introduced on the floor today.
Democrats focused on rebutting falsehoods and highlighting specific issues that are affected by net neutrality. Senator Marie Cantwell knocked down the lie that net neutrality protections slowed down investment in networks. This conservative talking point has been the foundation of the argument against Title II classification for ISPs. Cantwell told the room:
In the year following the rule that went into place, the entire industry shows that the total capital expenditures increased by more than $US550 million above the previous year's investment. For example, in [its] 2017 earnings report, Comcast, the nation's largest broadband provider, noted that its capital expenditures increased 7.5 per cent - nine-billion dollars - and that it continued to make deployments on platforms like the X1 and wireless gateways. Likewise, AT&T spent $US22 billion on capital investments of $US20 billion from the previous year. In fact, 2016 represents the industry's highest single year jump in broadband network investment since 1999.
Other Democrats spoke at length about how important net neutrality is for local news, emergency response, rural users, and the economically poor, as well as small businesses. Senator Ron Wyden emphasised that the end of net neutrality will have a direct impact on consumers and the services they choose to use like online video streaming and video games. "There is no vote that this body is going to take in 2018 that will have a more direct impact on the wallets of Americans than the one is going to happen in a few hours," Wyden insisted.
Senator Collins was already on board in the lead up to today's vote, but Kennedy and Murkowski were both undecided as recently as Tuesday. Net neutrality activists like Fight for the Future launched a pressure campaign urging the two senators' constituents to demand they vote yes on the CRA measure. By all appearances, the campaign worked. Kennedy's vote came as a bit of surprise because in March he introduced legislation that was clearly the work of big telecom lobbyists. The bill still allowed ISPs to provide paid prioritisation services and other loopholes that still amount to internet fast lanes and don't preserve the fundamental net neutrality principle that all traffic on the internet should be treated equally.
In the past several months, ISPs have pushed hard to jam a net neutrality bill through Congress that would pay lip service to the fundamental guidelines the Obama-era rules put in place. But activists have warned that complicated Frankenstein legislation that makes it through this Republican-controlled Congress is unlikely to include the firm prohibition of throttling, blocking, or paid-prioritisation of web traffic. Further, overturning legislation is far more difficult than overturning federal agency rules.
The CRA isn't used very often, but Republicans did successfully employ the procedure last year to repeal FCC rules that prevented ISPs from selling users' browsing data without their consent. Still, today's vote means the proposal will have to go the House where Democrats will need to convince 25 Republicans to support net neutrality in order for the measure to pass — and they have until January of next year to do it. The viper pit of morons in that chamber will likely get distracted by Diamond and Silk or some shit before they ever get close to a positive vote.
Still, we've seen Republicans willing to bend to pressure with today's vote, and it proves that activism is working. As the midterm elections get closer and Representatives get hammered on taking a position that polling shows 86 per cent of Americans oppose, we could see things turn around fast.