No, Democrats can’t Save the Internet?

Profile picture for user jbowles By Jerry Bowles April 10, 2019
The Save the Internet Act passes in the House of Representatives but faces near-certain death in the Senate, leaving net neutrality advocates still out in the cold.

Image of Save the Internet sign
The U.S. House of Representatives successfully pushed through the Save the Internet Act Wednesday afternoon that would restore the net neutrality rules put in place by way by the Obama-era FCC’s Open Internet Order in 2015 and repealed under a Republican majority in 2017.

The bill was approved 232-190, with only one Republican breaking ranks to vote with Democrats, after weeks of contentious debate and name-calling in the House.

Before you break out the fireworks and champagne, the Bill now goes to the Senate, where Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has already pronounced it “dead on arrival.” Even if—by some unlikely chance the bill were to survive—President Trump has already pledged to veto it.

Spoiler alert: There will be no change until after the 2020 election depending on which party is in charge. That guarantees that net neutrality will be a potent Democratic campaign issue in the upcoming elections.

What’s it all about?

At issue is who makes the rules for the internet. In 2017, FCC voted along party lines to dismantle the Obama-era net neutrality regulations that barred internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking legal content, or impairing or slowing internet, a practice known as throttling, or engage in paid prioritization, the practice of creating fast lanes for those who pay extra for services, at the expense of those who don’t.

The Obama-era rules allowed the FCC to treat broadband as a common carrier under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934 and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. It established that ISPs should treat all data packets equally, regardless of their content. The network had to remain a separate and neutral layer from content, and if ISPs infringed upon that separation, the FCC had powers to make them comply.

The FCC's 2017 repeal of those rules allows them to reclassify ISPs as Title I ‘information services,' which are subject to fewer regulations. The Save the Internet Act seeks to restore the Title II classification.

Once those rules are gone (they go into effect on April 23, which is only a couple of weeks from now) there is nothing to prevent an ISPs like Comcast or Verizon or ATT from slowing down or blocking access to some websites. The ISPs also could accept fees from web companies to make their videos or other content load faster than competitors’ in “paid prioritization” deals. (Technically, they have to explain to the FCC why they are doing these things, but that is basically paperwork for lawyers.)

The repeal was supported by telecom providers such as Comcast and Verizon but opposed by large tech companies, including Google and Facebook.

The political fallout

“Net neutrality” is generally popular among voters of all parties and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had fast-tracked the bill for a quick vote in the House. A University of Maryland poll found that 86 percent of voters opposed the FCC’s 2017 repeal of the Title II Net Neutrality rules, including 82 percent of Republicans and 90 percent of Democrats.

The last two days of hearings on the floor of the House before the vote illustrate the deeply partisan divide that separates the two sides and preview the battle ahead. Democratic representative Mike Doyle (Pa), one of the original sponsors of the bill, argued on the House floor:

“Two years ago, the trump FCC repealed the Open Internet order. What did it replace it with? Nothing. Nada. Zip. Crickets. They did nothing. It's the wild, wild west. Let the ISPs do anything they want and consumers be damned. That's what they did. For two years, they could have brought their so-called version of light touch net neutrality to the body. They controlled the House. They controlled the Senate. They got a Republican president. They did nothing because they don't believe in net neutrality and they don't believe in protecting consumers.”

Doyle reminded his colleagues:

“May I tell my colleagues whether they are Republicans, Democrats or Independents, 86% of the American people say they want these rules restored. This is your first and only chance to tell the American people where you stand on net neutrality and whether you believe that the FCC should protect consumers. This is your chance to be on the right side of history, on the side of the angels, on the side of the American people.”

Republican Representative Greg Walden (OR), the most vocal foe of the legislation called the Democratic bill "a government takeover of the internet" and added:

“Democrats want to give the federal government near unlimited authority to regulate, tax and limit the full potential of the internet. This is not real #NetNeutrality. The Democrat internet regulation bill will hurt the ability of small ISPs to expand broadband to rural communities in Oregon & across the country. We can achieve real #NetNeutrality without this heavy-handed approach that will hurt our efforts to bridge the digital divide.

“We all want an open and free internet-–a permanent solution to ensure this phenomenon continues to power opportunity and innovation. Unfortunately, Democrats refused to work in a bipartisan way to achieve that goal. Their solution is not real net neutrality. And everyone knows their bill will never become law.”

My Take

That, of course, may have been the reason Nancy Pelosi brought the bill to the floor so quickly in the first place.

With the 2020 election cycle already well underway and the undercurrent of rancor that has bogged down both the Democrats and Republicans in Congress, the possibility of passing important bipartisan legislation into law is somewhere between nil and nada.

In the House, where Democrats control the agenda, the main objective seems to get Republicans to vote “no” on popular issues to “get them on the record” for the campaign ahead. The game is the same in the Republican-led Senate, except the script is reversed.

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s famous musing that “democracy is messy” somehow fails to do justice to the reality of latter-day Washington.